By Nick Hopkins –
Commons select committee says Arab spring demands a change of policy in dealing with authoritarian regimes
The UK must change its arms export policy to prevent weapons and other military equipment being sold to authoritarian regimes because the Arab spring has shown the system is fundamentally flawed, a Commons report warns.
A review of export controls also highlights how the Foreign Office has admitted it is now concerned about allowing the sale of certain specialist equipment to Argentina, which has included counter-submarine hardware, as well as components for military radar and combat aircraft.
The report of the joint committees on arms export controls includes previously unpublished details about what has been sold abroad over the past two years.
It also highlights how an unprecedented number of export licences had to be revoked because of fears that British equipment could be used for human rights abuses in the Middle East and north Africa. In all, 158 arms licences had to be withdrawn.
The committee says this is “demonstrable evidence that the initial judgments to approve the applications were flawed”. Although restrictions have been introduced, MPs question whether exports to certain countries in the region, including Bahrain, can be justified.
Under the government’s own guidelines, licences cannot be issued if there is a clear risk that the equipment might provoke conflict or could be used to facilitate internal repression.
Records for last year show 97 licences were granted for sales to Bahrain for equipment including assault rifles, sniper rifles, body armour, gun silencers, shotguns, pistols, weapons sights and small arms ammunition.
“Bahrain is self-evidently a very sensitive country, given the very serious human rights violations that took place there,” said Sir John Stanley, the select committee chairman.
“There have been very serious human rights violations involving doctors and nurses. We have picked out those [licences] which we think are most questionable on grounds for use for internal repression.”
The committee says there is a compelling case for the Foreign Office to include the 28 countries on its watchlist for human rights abuses as part of a review of arms export policy. These nations include Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
“The government should extend its arms export policy review to include authoritarian regimes and countries of human rights concerns,” said Stanley. On Argentina, Stanley said the views of the Foreign Office reflected concern in the government about the UK’s “previous Falklands experience, where British ships were tragically sunk and many people lost their lives”. He added: “The only explanation I can put is that the government is concerned about the policies they have been following hitherto on arms export licences to Argentina.”
He urged the Foreign Office to make “significantly more cautious judgments on the export of arms.”
The committee also questions why so many licences were granted for sales to China despite an EU arms embargo, and why the government has allowed the sale of cryptographic equipment (for encrypting information) to many countries where there are fears of rights violations.
“This equipment scrambles conversations and makes speech unintelligible, and it is a key element of protecting communications used by security forces,” said Stanley, Conservative MP for Tonbridge. “If you are an authoritarian and repressive regime and preparing an operation to send tanks into a village or break up a demonstration, security forces take great care to make sure those they are going to attack don’t get any warning in advance.”
Roy Isbister, of Saferworld, an independent NGO which campaigns on arms issues, said: “There may be innocent explanations for some of these sales, but they certainly raise eyebrows. We need to have more detail to make a judgment on whether there are legitimate reasons for these sales.”
The Foreign Office maintained it had rigorous licence controls. Arms licences to Argentina had been tightened in April amid a diplomatic spat over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, it said. Export licences to Bahrain had also been refused in certain cases.
Alistair Burt, the minister for counter-proliferation, said: “As we have consistently said, we do not and will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or where it might be used to facilitate internal repression.
“The UK has a rigorous export licensing procedure. We look at each application on a case-by-case basis. It is wrong to allege that in the runup to the Arab spring UK export controls were lax. When the licences in question were issued, they were properly assessed in the light of the prevailing circumstances.
“Once the circumstances changed, the risk was reassessed and licences were revoked.
“This is evidence of a system that is working, not failing. There is no evidence that equipment supplied by the UK was used to facilitate internal repression during the Arab spring.”