Categories: export licensing

The fundamental flaw in Britain’s arms export policy

The events of the “Arab Spring” have resulted in a great deal of scrutiny of the British Government’s export licensing procedures. Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls have recommended in their most recent report that:

the Government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes “which might be used to facilitate internal repression” in contravention of the Government’s policy (paragraph 124 of Volume 1)

The Government has rejected that recommendation (paragraph 124, page 59).  The Government’s position is that it considers each export licence application against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, which have been newly updated since the Arms Trade Treaty was negotiated last year. It has defended itself against the Committee’s suggestion that the revocation of export licences during the Arab Spring indicated the original decisions were flawed by saying revocation does not imply that the initial decisions were wrong, given the circumstances prevailing at the time they were taken. Indeed the Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament that the review of Britain’s defence and security export policy in the light of events in the Middle East and North Africa had “concluded that there are no fundamental flaws with the UK export licensing system”.

The new Criteria contain an interesting passage in the preamble:

They will not be applied mechanistically but on a case-by-case basis taking into account all relevant information available at the time the licence application is assessed. While the Government recognises that there are situations where transfers must not take place, as set out in the following criteria, we will not refuse a licence on the grounds of a purely theoretical risk of a breach of one or more of those Criteria.

This is the crux of the issue. There are two obvious problems with the Government’s approach:

  1. Weapons and other military equipment are not perishable goods. In fact their shelf life, particularly in the case of major weapons system, tends to be very long, measured in decades rather than years. Thus any export licensing system which aims to avoid British arms exports being used for internal repression needs to look at the long-term, rather than just the situation “at the time the licence application is assessed”. Further, what might happen in the long-term should not be treated as a “purely theoretical risk”.
  2. In the new Criteria it says “items which might be used for internal repression will include, inter alia, items where there is evidence of the use of these or similar items for internal repression by the proposed end-user”. But it is rarely possible for evidence to be gathered about the use of exported equipment by foreign governments, and therefore creates a risk of unduly permissive licensing decisions. As the Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls Sir John Stanley MP pointed out in Parliament, when discussing the Government’s claim that “there is no corroborated evidence that any UK-supplied equipment was used to facilitate internal repression in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring”:

    Of course there was no evidence. One has only to look through the 25 pages of items that we exported to see that their nature was overwhelmingly such that their origin could not be identified when they reached the specified countries. They were made up of electronics, communications equipment, cryptography, ammunition and sniper rifles. There are no Union Jacks on bullets and sniper rifles. The Foreign Secretary said that there was no evidence, but of course there was no evidence, and we did not have anyone on the ground anyway.

Let’s now look at the extant licences for Saudi Arabia detailed in the Committees on Arms Export Controls latest report which could be used for internal repression

body armour, anti riot/ballistic shields, components for body armour, military helmets, components for all-wheel vehicles with ballistic protection, general military vehicle components, components for ground vehicle military communications equipment, ground vehicle military communications equipment, components for machine guns, components for military combat vehicles, components for military support vehicles, components for military communications equipment, crowd control ammunition, hand grenades, smoke/pyrotechnic ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training crowd control ammunition, cryptographic software, equipment employing cryptography, military communications equipment, technology for military communications equipment, CS hand grenades, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training tear gas/irritant ammunition, software for equipment employing cryptography, software for the use of equipment employing cryptography, gun silencers, military communications equipment, small arms ammunition, software for ground vehicle military communications equipment, technology for ground vehicle military communications equipment, command communications control and intelligence software, components for machine guns, machine guns, equipment for the use of machine guns, weapon night sights, weapon sight mounts, weapon sights, equipment for the use of weapon night sights, military combat vehicles and military support vehicles.

Even right now, judgements made about whether this equipment could be used for internal repression are questionable. There are, not surprisingly, some tensions under the surface in Saudi Arabia, as documented in a recent BBC documentary about Qatif in Eastern Province.  And Saudi Arabia’s well-documented poor human rights record (it is after all a “country of concern” for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) can give us no confidence that the suppression of protests will be free of human rights violations.

But thinking ahead to the next few years or even decades, no one can know what the situation will be then. Commentators and experts have been predicting the demise of the Saudi regime for decades, and it has not happened yet. But then Colonel Gaddafi was in power for 41 years, and the uprising against his regime was not predicted by the British Government. Far from it. The Government had to revoke many export licences, saying “Increasing tension in Libya resulted in reassessment and that this licence now contravenes Criteria 2 & 3”. Political change in the modern world can be rapid and unexpected.

The policy choice is this:

  1. An export licensing system where for many countries we can have no idea whether ultimately British supplied goods will be used for internal repression. That is the current British system, even after the recent tinkering by the Government.
  2. An export licensing system where there is a presumption of denial for the export of equipment which could be used for internal repression to any country outside North America or Western Europe and possibly a handful of others; in other words, countries which follow human rights standards similar to our own.

The idea that we just need some better judgements by the officials to me seems unlikely to make a difference. The problem is weapons systems and military equipment last a long-time, while the validity of political judgements about the internal situation prevailing in any given country does not (as Libya showed, the shelf life of such judgements can often be only a few weeks). This problem is a crucial one in the context of conventional arms control, but one too often overlooked.

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