Government flouting own arms controls

The government has failed to rigorously enforce its own guidelines on ethical arms exports, a new independent report has claimed.

Despite claiming to promote human rights, the UK government routinely sells weapons to countries with poor human rights records, according to a new report by the NGO Saferworld.

The report, entitled the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, also suggests the government has failed to fully consider the loopholes that allow arms dealers to circumnavigate existing restrictions.

Similarly, the report claimed the government does too little to trace exports once they leave the UK.

It states: “During their term in office, Labour has re-written the UK’s export control laws and shown real leadership internationally, including championing the international Arms Trade Treaty.

“However, these have been overshadowed by poor implementation and by decisions that have flouted the government’s own criteria.”

However, the Foreign Office maintained the UK has an “exemplary” record on arms control and is considered to have one of the world’s most transparent policies.

Released to mark a decade of self-proclaimed ethical foreign policy, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly concludes the government has not done enough to control the licensing of British arms, to monitor the final destination of exports or the activities of British dealers based overseas.

In the three years to 2006, the UK government approved exports to 19 out of 20 “countries of concern”, including Colombia and Israel. Export licences were also approved to Egypt, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Turkey, despite criticism of their human rights records.

The report also found an increase in exports to India and Pakistan, despite recommendations the government should not sell weapons to unstable regions where they risk exacerbating conflicts.

It does, however, recognise the initial efforts by the government to improve the arms trade, including powers for ministers to oversee and block exports.

It continues: “A fundamental paradox lies at the heart of Labour’s approach to arms exports: the government claims it has a foreign policy with an ‘ethical dimension’, yet there is no guarantee that such a policy wins the day when it comes to arms exports.

“Instead, as the cancellation of the SFO inquiry into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia demonstrates, when push comes to shove, other interests appear to hold sway”.

As evidence of the predominance given to business and so-called national interest, the report points to the sale of cockpit displays for US F-16 aircraft, which were exported to Israel. Then foreign secretary Jack Straw justified the sale because of the “importance of maintaining a strong and dynamic defence relationship with the US.”

Claire Hickson, head of advocacy and communications at Saferworld, concluded: “The last ten years have witnessed a number of ‘good’ policies undermined by ‘bad’ implementation, and numerous examples of outright ‘ugly’ practice.”

The government noted Saferworld’s report, adding many of the issues raised in it are not new.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The UK already has a rigorous policy on scrutinising arms export licences, which are kept under constant review in the light of prevailing political circumstances in the countries concerned.

“We regularly report to parliament and consider with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and others how export control systems can be improved.

“As Saferworld has recognised, we have also taken the lead in discussions at the UN in taking forward an Arms Trade Treaty to control the illegal arms trade worldwide”.

However, the Liberal Democrats have jumped on the report, claiming it shows Labour’s record on arms exports is “one of failure and scandal”.

Foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore said: “After ten years of New Labour and its promise of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, this report highlights that the prime minister’s record on arms controls is an ugly one.

“Despite welcome bans on land mines and torture equipment, the government has failed to implement many of its own export criteria and has still to honour its manifesto commitment to introduce full extraterritorial controls on arms brokering.”

Both the Liberal Democrats and Saferworld called on Gordon Brown to further tighten arms controls when he assumes the leadership next month.

Britain is the world’s second largest exporter of arms, aided by an annual £450 million subsidy from the government through research, promotion and development.