Analysis: Arms Trade: A Question That Won't Go Away for Labour: Is It Ethical to Sell Arms to Countries at War? ; Britain Played a Lead Role in Establishing an EU Code, but the Export of Weapons to Conflict Zones Is a Missing Link in Government Policy

By Eavis, Paul | The Independent (London, England), May 28, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Analysis: Arms Trade: A Question That Won't Go Away for Labour: Is It Ethical to Sell Arms to Countries at War? ; Britain Played a Lead Role in Establishing an EU Code, but the Export of Weapons to Conflict Zones Is a Missing Link in Government Policy


Eavis, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


THE LABOUR Government has found itself at the centre of a storm over arms exports once again. This time to India where the dispute with neighbouring Pakistan over Kashmir region is threatening to turn into a nuclear exchange.

The paradox is that while seeking to employ an ethical foreign policy and enhance the positive role it wants to play in the world, Britain is also keen to promote the sale of arms exports yet reluctant to impose stricter controls on arms sales to dubious regimes and areas of military tension.

This has, in its most recent manifestation, raised concerns over the alleged lobbying roles of cabinet members to convince the Indian government to buy 66 Hawk fighter jets despite the dispute over Kashmir nearing breaking point.

The Hawks will cost pounds 1bn, equal to 10 years of UK bilateral aid to India. The question many are asking is whether Jack Straw - on a peace mission to the region - will be under pressure to close the deal.

To its credit, the Government has taken a lead in establishing arms control measures through the agreement of an EU Code of Conduct on exports, the publication of an annual report on weapons sales and a ban on production and export of landmines and torture equipment.

The Export Control Bill, a response to the 1996 Scott report recommendations for new arms legislation, is going through Parliament. However, new policy initiatives have not been matched by control of the more controversial weapons sales. The most controversial arms exports licensed under the last Conservative government, such as machine guns and water cannon to Indonesia - used to suppress democracy demonstrations - and tanks to Nigeria after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, have not been repeated. That has been welcomed by campaigners but the Government has faced a number of controversies, which show questionable exports are still being licensed. This all raises serious questions about the implementation of the EU Code of Conduct on arms exports.

The code states exports will not be licensed if there is a risk that weapons could be used for "internal repression". Upon coming to power in 1997, the Government was confronted with the decision of whether to allow the supply of 16 Hawk jets to Indonesia from a sale licensed under the previous administration.

Despite repeated claims that Hawk aircraft had been used to intimidate the civilian population in East Timor, the Government did not revoke the contracts because it claimed it had received legal advice to the effect they could not be cancelled. The legal advice has never been published. The Indonesian government eventually acknowledged the jets were used over East Timor in July 1999.

The code also states licences will not be granted if they could affect the internal situation in the recipient country and "provoke or prolong armed conflicts". In January 1998, Royal Ordnance, now part of BAE Systems, applied for an export licence to refurbish 30 large field guns in Morocco, which has been engaged in a conflict over the disputed territory of Western Sahara since 1975.

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Analysis: Arms Trade: A Question That Won't Go Away for Labour: Is It Ethical to Sell Arms to Countries at War? ; Britain Played a Lead Role in Establishing an EU Code, but the Export of Weapons to Conflict Zones Is a Missing Link in Government Policy
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