ON the face of it, and in light of the widespread condemnation of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, it might seem odd that the UK is still granting licences for the export of armoured 4x4 vehicles to Syria.
Odder still that the UK government has permitted the sale of certain hazardous chemicals to Syria, too. These licences have been questioned in the latest report by the committees on arms export controls (CAEC), along with scores of others involving equipment sold to countries involved in the Arab spring, as well as China and Argentina.
The British Foreign Office explains that the vehicles were intended to protect western diplomats, and never got to Damascus. The chemicals were exported only after officials were “100 per cent certain” that they were going to a private company for industrial use, and none other.
The explanation for the sales to Syria may be watertight. But with the UK arms industry still so important to the economy, and pressure from companies to continue trading undiminished, MPs are yet to be convinced that the government is being as rigorous as it says it is.
Sir John Stanley, the CAEC chairman, made it clear that he has doubts the UK is following its own policy on approving arms sales to certain regimes, and argues that it is self-evident that the government needs to tighten up the way it applies its own rules.
When the Foreign Office reviewed exports to Israel, after a bombardment of Gaza in 2008 that is said to have killed up to 1,500 Palestinians, Britain revoked “half a dozen licences”, said Stanley. In response to the Arab spring, 158 were revoked.
“That is a totally unprecedented numerical revocation of existing export licences,” he said. “Against that experience, the government should apply significantly more cautious judgments on arms to authoritarian regimes.”
One problem is that there is no official index of authoritarian regimes. So MPs decided that the government should look at the Foreign Office's list of 28 countries where diplomats have “the most serious and wide-ranging human rights concerns”. Roy Isbister, of Saferworld, the NGO that campaigns on arms issues, says a more radical approach is needed. “The government should draw up a list of states where they think there is a higher risk that things can go wrong. Some countries might be ‘brittle’ or ‘fragile’ states. That is, they appear stable but that is because they manage themselves through force or threat of force, but they can go horribly wrong, very quickly. We think there should be a presumption of denial of arms exports for these states.”
Stanley does not go that far, but he does question whether the UK is applying, as strictly as it should, its own official criteria on arms exports.
The language in the policy seems unambiguous. Decisions to refuse licences can be taken if there is a “clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression”. In evidence to the committee, the foreign secretary, William Hague, acknowledged this was still the government's position.
“The policy rests on two legs,” said Stanley. “You can argue till the cows come home about whether there is a risk, and if it is clear. That is why it is so crucial that [Hague] endorsed the second part of the test about the facilitation of internal repression.” This should be much easier to decide in difficult cases, the committees believe.
Anna Macdonald, Oxfam's head of arms control, said: “The MPs are absolutely right. The UK should be far more vigilant in their risk assessment process for arms exports in the future, but the need for global regulation of the international arms trade is just as acute, with thousands of people killed, maimed or made poor by irresponsible arms deals every day.”
The Foreign Office insists that it takes “all possible precautions” to ensure that licences are not given if there is any fear that equipment might be used for human rights violations. Officials point to Bahrain, where licences have been refused in the last two years, while others to equip the Bahrain navy have been approved. The Foreign Office says the Bahrain navy has had no involvement in the repression and violence that has taken place. But for some campaigners, this will be regarded as splitting hairs. — The Guardian, London