In July 2014, in an effort to pre-empt embarrassing revelations that might emerge from the UN’s decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the British foreign secretary made a tactical confession. Between 1983 and 1986, Britain had approved sales of chemical weapons precursors to Syria, which was known to be developing a massive weapons programme. William Hague told Parliament that the chemicals were probably ‘used by Syria in their programmes to produce nerve agents, including sarin’. ‘Such exports could not happen today,’ he said.
In March 2015, the Committees on Arms Export Controls said that ‘the decision of the present government to give two export licence approvals for dual-use chemicals to Syria in January 2012 after the civil war had started in Syria in 2011 was irresponsible,’ and that ‘the present government’s claim that at the time the two dual-use chemical export licences for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride to Syria were approved in January 2012 “there were no grounds for refusal” is grossly inaccurate.’
Britain’s export control regime is meant to stop this sort of thing. Controlled goods (weapons, chemicals, telecommunications interception technology etc.) cannot be sold without a licence, which must be denied if – among other reasons – they could be used for internal repression or in indiscriminate bombing.
Almost half of British arms exports go to Saudi Arabia, up fivefold since the kingdom intervened in Yemen’s civil war. British bombs are being dropped by British planes maintained by British personnel over one of the world’s poorest countries. Tens of thousands of people have died, if not from direct bombardment then from starvation or disease as a result of the Saudi-led blockade and the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure. Last week, Saudi Arabia bombed a Yemeni wedding, killing 20 people including the bride.
The British government is also bullish about approving exports of surveillance equipment and small arms to regimes that routinely detain and torture political prisoners, including Turkey, Bahrain and the Philippines.
It has a stock response to questions about arms sales: ‘The UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.’ But there is a designed subjectivity at the heart of the law: the test for denying arms sales rests on whether there is ‘a clear risk that the items might be used in internal repression [or] violations of international humanitarian law’. The government argues that there may be a risk that Saudi Arabia is violating international law, but it is not ‘clear’.
Alan Clark once said that the export controls when he was the Conservative minister for trade (1986-89) and defence procurement (1989-92) were ‘high sounding’ but ‘so imprecise and so obviously drafted with the objective of flexibility in either direction – elasticity, shall I say – as to make them fair game [and] elusive of definition’.
Clark was exposed in the arms-to-Iraq affair for encouraging British manufacturers to emphasise the civilian uses of their products. He was at least honest about his lack of interest in what was done with British arms after they were sold, whether Saddam Hussein was using them to gas the Kurds, or Suharto to carry out genocide in East Timor. The Scott Inquiry and subsequent legislation were supposed to have addressed the problem but fundamentally little has changed. Today we are arming Muhammad bin Salman and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are among those fuelling the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, wars in which Britain is a de facto belligerent.
Arms exports constitute around 1.6 per cent of total UK exports in value but receive 50 per cent of export credit in the form of loans or guarantees, underwritten by the taxpayer. The Department for International Trade employs hundreds of civil servants as sales reps for the private arms industry; no other export industry of the same size enjoys such a perk. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has said he would ‘personally lead on helping the defence and security industries to export’.
Since the DIT is also responsible for licensing arms exports, there would seem to be a clear conflict of interest, with commercial considerations overriding human rights and security ones. It would seem sensible, for a start, to have a presumption of denial for applications for licences to export arms to places on the Foreign Office list of ‘human rights priority countries’. At the moment the list has too many countries in common with the DIT list of ‘priority markets’ for arms promotion.