That is a very good point. I am really sorry that so few companies have been prosecuted since for supplying some of the arms. The authorities did that in Germany, and are continuing to do so, but there have been very few prosecutions in this country.
As I was saying, in 1990 Saddam’s troops invaded Kuwait and he became an enemy of the west, but Saddam had not changed overnight. Enough was already known about his regime’s human rights violations—backed by detailed information from inside the country about the savage nature of the regime—and about the UK
Government’s and companies’ attempts to arm him. Some us had tried to stop that, but our warnings were not heeded.
When the Labour Government came to office in 1997, there was a test case for the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy”. I remember sitting at the Foreign Office, listening to the speech he made. I went up to him at the end of it and said, “I am very pleased to hear those words from you, but I’ll be watching you”. I did not realise how quickly I would have to put those words into operation, because the test case for the ethical foreign policy that he spelt out, with human rights at its heart, was selling arms to Indonesia, as we were doing at that time. Anybody who followed that particular conflict will know that repression in Aceh, for example, was acute. President Suharto’s troops were still occupying East Timor then. I am glad to say that our new Leader of the Opposition came to East Timor with me at the time and monitored some of the things that were going on there.
The previous Conservative Government had issued licences for the export of Hawk aircraft and armoured vehicles to Indonesia, but when Labour came to power, the equipment had not yet been delivered. Unfortunately, Robin Cook was not able to convince his Cabinet colleagues at that time and the export licences were not revoked. Hawk aircraft were later in action in Aceh and the armoured vehicles out on the streets of Jakarta.
However, the new Labour Government in 1997 did institute annual reports on arms export licences. Members of the four relevant Select Committees—the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Trade and Industry Committee, the International Development Committee and the Defence Committee—came together to look at those reports. Initially known, for obvious reasons, as the Quadripartite Committee, it became the Committees on Arms Export Controls in 2008. I was a member of the Committees in both guises.
In the last Parliament, the Committees on Arms Export Controls was chaired by Sir John Stanley. As everybody knows, he is a former Conservative Defence Minister; I pay tribute to the work of Sir John, my colleague both on the Committees on Arms Export Controls and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I also note that every CAEC—as it began to be known—report was unanimously agreed by their members during their 15 years of existence, including those when Sir John was chair. Sir John assiduously raised arms export issues with Ministers and civil servants and he came to see what it is at the heart of this debate—that it is not possible to promote human rights at the same time as promoting arms exports. The two are not compatible.
The CAEC report from the last parliamentary Session said that
“the Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time rather than claiming, as the Government continued to do…that these two policies ‘are mutually reinforcing’”.
Although so far unable to convince Governments of this, the Committees on Arms Export Controls’ oversight was of immense benefit—I stress that it really was of immense benefit—in shedding light on this cross-departmental issue. For six months now, we have been without those Committees. As yet, my inquiries have not indicated when they are likely to be reformed. The global situation regarding conflict and arms transfers, not least as it affects the middle-east and north Africa, makes it vital to have the Committees functioning at the earliest possible date. I would therefore urge the relevant Committee Chairs to come together as a matter of urgency to ensure that this process of scrutiny continues.
UK Governments—plural—argue that they operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world, that their export licensing criteria take human rights into account and that licences will not be granted if the equipment might be used for human rights abuse, or more particularly, if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression, to provoke or prolong armed conflicts or to aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination. All applications are subject to a case-by-case assessment.
In the first instance, I note with regard to the “clear risk” criteria that I just mentioned, that that is vague as to what exactly constitutes a clear risk. How can that be defined? What meets that threshold? To my mind, “clear risk” is in effect a blank cheque in human rights terms. In connection with that, it would be helpful, as a starting point, to know about the UK’s risk assessment methodology. We were always being told, when Ministers in Governments of all colours were being questioned, that there would be or was monitoring in the countries to which the arms were supplied. However, I have continually failed to find out what that monitoring constitutes.
In the previous Parliament, CAEC also raised concerns about the insufficiency of information being released about specific end users. Although the country is mentioned, there is no more specific designation. That means that the public are left in the dark about exactly who will be receiving the arms in question. I call on the Government to provide information about who exactly UK-supplied equipment will be used by and for what purpose.
In addition, situations change. The fact that after the uprisings in north Africa and the middle east in the spring of 2011, more than 150 licences—more than 150—had to be revoked indicates that the Government’s licensing process leaves a lot to be desired. Frankly, many of those licences should never have been granted in the first place, because licence revocation can be of only limited effect, for the simple reason that revocation is of no use whatever for exports that have already been shipped—those arms can never be recovered. It is imperative, therefore, that the utmost caution—that is, much more caution—be exercised when assessments are being undertaken on arms exports to authoritarian and war-torn countries.
However, the incompatibility between promoting human rights and promoting arms exports is primarily a difficulty not with export controls, but with the mindset that prioritises export promotion. Arms sales are promoted by those right at the top of Government. That is not new. Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron have all led delegations to promote arms sales, including to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Earlier this year, licences to Foreign and Commonwealth Office-designated countries of concern were valued at almost £12 billion.
In the middle of the brutal suppression of protest in the middle east in February 2011, the Prime Minister chose to go ahead with an arms promotion tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The message sent to those regimes is quite alarming; the UK Government were in effect legitimising the regimes and provided them with political cover. Even the help of the royal family is enlisted. Prince Charles famously did a sword dance in Saudi Arabia in 2014 to secure a fighter jet deal for BAE.
Those high-level sales efforts in relation to human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia mute any criticism of their abuse of human rights. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it is a “priority market” for the UK Government’s arms sales agency, the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation.
I think that the desire for arms deals prevents meaningful UK Government criticism of, for example, Saudi human rights abuses. That is a country where, according to Amnesty International, someone is executed every two days. Raif Badawi was brutally flogged and is in jail simply for blogging. Women are treated as second-class citizens, and immigrant workers far worse. The arms sales links have prevented the UK Government from criticising Saudi Arabia for the humanitarian catastrophe being created in Yemen. There are, it is said, even UK civil servants and military personnel in Saudi Arabia, who are now presumably supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign.
I mentioned the licences that the Government were forced to revoke in 2011, when the Arab uprisings took place.