Libya and the arms trade

Mar 20, 2011 | Uncategorized

The spectre of British manufactured weapons and munitions being used to crush dissent and to wound, maim and kill pro democracy demonstrators in North Africa and the Gulf brings great shame to this country.  Elsewhere, especially in fragile or destabilised regions of Africa, weapons which originate from Europe, the USA and China, allow war lords to rule by terror.
Small arms are all too often the weapons of mass destruction – with more than one person dying every minute, somewhere in the world, as a result of armed violence.  Armed violence costs Africa $US 19 billion a year – roughly what is spent annually on aid to Africa.
I suspect that in an effort to blur the picture – and to protect the arms manufacturers – Governments blind themselves to the nature and scale of arms sales, and the consequences. It is quietly whispered that if we didn’t provide the weapons someone else will.  Britain’s arms industry is said to be worth £35 billion.
But it’s one thing sell arms to democracies for defensive purposes and quite another to sell them to make a killing by selling them to authoritarian dictatorships, such as Libya.
I recently asked the Government what military equipment and armaments were sold to Libya by UK manufacturers in each of the past ten years; what was the value of those sales; and what considerations were taken into account before sales were permitted.  I was staggered to be told in a ministerial reply “The Government does not hold details of actual sales.” Well, shouldn’t they?
They do keep details of export licensing decisions and these can be viewed on the Strategic Export Controls web site: Go to the site and you will see that Britain rightly has a policy to deny arms to countries which trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The web site makes for fascinating reading – revealing the hundreds of millions of pounds that are generated by the arms trade. In one short three month period Saudi Arabia – which has been responsible for plentyof cruel and inhuman punishments – spent almost £30 million in the UK on new military hardware and on the enhancement of their military capacity.  In another three month period, over £9 million was paid by Libya on military equipment – much of it to enhance the capability of the country’s military aircraft. Presumably these are the same planes which have been bombing civilians and protestors – and would be used against the west in any attempt to impose a no-fly zone.
Until 2004 the EU had an arms embargo on Libya. The moment it was lifted it was like the 1897 Klondike gold rush.
France promised fighter jets, military helicopters and armoured vehicles. The UK provided the Libyan Police with armoured personnel carriers and tear gas. Belgium sold small arms and what they called “less than lethal weaponry” – and the 2010 Arms Fair in Tripoli was dominated by UK companies.  According to the UN, weapons sold to Libya by Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria were then re-exported to Darfur – notwithstanding a UN arms embargo.   Around 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, 2 million people displaced.
In media interviews, Government Ministers have said that they will review the criteria for trading in arms – but it’s not the criteria that are the problem. The problem is that the risk assessments are not rigorous enough.
The problem is that Government still hides behind the mantra that sales depend on “the prevailing circumstances at the time of application.” –  as Ministers stated in reply to my recent parliamentary question.
<span> Without expecting Ministers to be clairvoyants they do need to have some sense of what the future might hold.  Do our sale of weapons in the Gulf and North Africa imply that we never anticipated that one day democracy activists might seek to assert themselves and to challenge authoritarian rule? If so, it doesn’t say much for our intelligence gathering or for our diplomacy. </span>
<span> The problem is that too many people deploy the dissembling argument that if we are not selling weapons then others will take our place. They believe that Britain’s economic interests must trump all others. Even that argument is flawed when set against all the other innovative technology which we could be manufacturing and selling instead. </span>
If there is force in the argument that others will simply take our place as international quartermasters, it is best addressed by Britain using all its skills and clout to bring about the creation of a legally binding global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and to sign up immediately to domestic legislation tightening controls over the re-export of arms. My own Private Member’s Bill – the Re-Export Control Bill – passed all its stages in the House of Lords and has been laid before the Commons by the Conservative MP, Tony Baldry, a leading Anglican and a senior Church Commissioner in Parliament.
To date, officials in Vince Cable’s Business Department have been intent on blocking the Re-Export Bill – so it will only go through if there is a grass-roots campaign by the churches and others to create parliamentary pressure – or if Ministers are prepared to override their officials and give it a fair wind.   France, Germany and the U.S. all have re-export provisions in their laws, and so should we.  Cardinal O’Brien and Lord Mackay, the former Lord Chancellor, are among those who  have expressed welcome public support for the Bill.
The Re-Export Control Bill is only a small part of what needs to be done.
The big prize must be the enactment of an ATT – first proposed by Nobel Peace Laureates in 1995.
Negotiations on the framework for a new Treaty will conclude at the United Nations in 2012.
There are a number of States who are looking to their own interests or who will seek to delay or weaken the Treaty. The UK has been a significant supporter of the Treaty but during the next twelve months it urgently needs to prioritise support for the text of the draft treaty. Government needs to build a formidable coalition throughout the international community and among non-governmental organisations.
China’s involvement will be critical. Chinese nationals who have been caught up in Africa’s violence are seeing first hand why arms dealing must be curtailed. And China’s decision, at the Security Council, to refer Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, for crimes against humanity, was hugely significant.
We need to build international alliances – with China and many others.
The International Development Department should bring its know-how on arms dealing, conflict, corruption, and sustainable development to the forefront of the argument. The Ministry of Defence should engage with counterparts in other ministries and armed forces to give the Treaty muscle and, along with our diplomats and trade envoys, ensure that the ATT becomes a reality. As one of the biggest global arms exporters Britain is well-placed to take the lead and has a moral duty to do so. ——————————————————————————————————————————— Arms Trade: Libya and North Africa
Question March 9th2011
3.30 pm
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool<
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review their policy on the sale of arms and military equipment in the light of events in Libya and north Africa.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint): My Lords, we continue to believe that the assessment of all export licence applications on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria is the right approach. In the light of the rapidly changing events in Libya and north Africa, we acted to revoke licences where there was a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression or human rights abuses.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first appearance at Question Time. What are the Government doing to prioritise a legally binding arms trade treaty, and will they now support the enactment of my Re-Export Controls Bill, the provisions of which have been endorsed by three separate Select Committees in another place and supported throughout proceedings in your Lordships’ House? It has also been reintroduced as a Bill in another place by Mr Tony Baldry MP. Have not recent events in north Africa and the Gulf demonstrated that we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent British weapons and munitions being used to crush dissent, to attack unarmed civilians, to destabilise whole regions, and to kill and maim those who are trying to give birth to democratic institutions?
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint: My Lords, I think the whole House shares the instinct that lies behind the noble Lord’s questions. It is absolutely imperative that we conduct our defence and security sales business on the basis of high standards and under strict controls. Those controls are in place, but we always need to make sure that we take account of new experience. As for the proposal on the re-export of arms and control
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of that, the difficulty is that it is always the case that once arms have passed from this country to the buying country, there is no jurisdiction for any law passed in this country. We therefore remain concerned that any such Act would remain effectively null and void. We should continue to base our approach on careful pre-licensing scrutiny of export sales.
An arms trade treaty is a priority of the Government. We are committed to agreeing a strong and comprehensive arms trade treaty. We have a unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that provides official support. We are working with key partners, such as the European Union, the United States and the co-authors of the treaty proposal-Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya.
Lord Judd: Does the Minister agree that the real issue of concern is the underlying drive in policy? Armaments should never be another useful export unless there is some specific reason for exporting them. Surely the culture in the unstable world in which we are living, with all the recent experience, should be that arms are an extremely dangerous export to promote, and should be exported only when there is a specific strategic purpose that can be monitored and held to account in the context of our relationship with the people who are receiving those arms. At the moment, we need to bring the emphasis in that direction, instead of the one that has prevailed.
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for that question. It is important to keep a balance. Every country has a right to self-defence. We live in an imperfect world; if it were a perfect world we would have no need of defence industries, needless to say. It is clearly extremely important that sales of defence and security equipment are conducted to the highest possible standards, and that we work with recipient Governments to ensure the proper use of such equipment and services. We must also make sure that we learn from experience. We would all acknowledge that we have some things to learn from the terrible events in Libya.</span>
Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the question goes slightly beyond the sale of military equipment and arms referred to in the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? Will he confirm that the sale of such items as Taser guns, tear gas and other material, which are clearly being used in north Africa and the Middle East to suppress legitimate democratic uprisings, will be banned by this Government?
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint: I thank my noble friend but, as I said earlier, we believe that the right approach to defence goods is a case-by-case one. There are legitimate uses of many defence products and services. Some we do not market or manufacture in compliance with international restrictions, but in general the right thing to do is to follow a case-by-case approach.
<span>Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, is there any harm in the Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred? It seems to me that it could do good. When
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the Bill was being debated here, I could not understand on what basis it was suggested that it could do any harm, if enacted.
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint: I thank my noble friend for the question. The point is not whether it could do any harm, but the fact that there is real concern about whether it could do any good as it is effectively unenforceable. We do not want any distraction from the important focus on thorough pre-licensing scrutiny.
Lord Elton: My Lords, a question at the back of many minds, which we do not much like to ask, is this: if we are going to be engaged in a no-fly zone and in enforcing it, is there any prospect that British pilots will face air defences supplied by British companies?
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint: I thank my noble friend. This is clearly a very difficult position. The situation is evolving from day to day. It is tragic; civilians are being killed and the outcome is unclear. The right thing for Her Majesty’s Government to do is to work with the international community to try to find a way forward that protects the citizenry of Libya.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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