Cook acts to stop advertising of banned torture weapons on government website

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The Independent Online

The government's export database is to be reviewed after The Independent revealed that it was used to advertise torture equipment, the Foreign Secretary announced last night.

The government's export database is to be reviewed after The Independent revealed that it was used to advertise torture equipment, the Foreign Secretary announced last night.

Robin Cook told the Liberal Democrat trade spokesman, David Chidgey, that it was "deeply regrettable" that a Surrey company had been able to list stun guns among its wares on the site. "The Department of Trade and Industry is reviewing its procedures," Mr Cook told a House of Commons committee.

The database had been set up so companies could amend their own entries, he said, but that was being looked at again. The equipment, which has been used to rape and torture prisoners, would need an export licence before it could leave the country, he said.

Mr Cook was speaking as he published his annual report on arms sales, which showed that exports from Britain dropped by 40 per cent last year. Some observers claimed the drop proves that Labour's "ethical" foreign policy is working, although defence manufacturers maintained that their business was still healthy.

Mr Cook said the drop in the value of UK arms exports, from £3.3bn in 1997 to £1.9bn in 1998, reflected changes in the marketplace. He said the Government's more moral approach to sales of arms was working.

Although figures from arms exporters suggest that contracts signed in 1998 amounted to £6bn, customs data on actual exports showed that one-third of that left the country.

The report showed a rise in the number of export licences refused, although these remained a small share of the total. In 1998 122 applications were refused, of a total of almost 10,000. Between May and December 1997, 45 were refused out of 6,400.

Mr Cook told MPs that Britain was now more transparent on arms exports than any other country in Europe. "I believe we now have a robust and effective system of regulation of arms exports," he said.

Alan Sharman, director-general of the Defence Manufacturers' Association, said the ethical policy had made only a slight difference, and the customs data did not reflect the full value of deals.

"The expectation is that defence exports may decline a little in the next couple of years but climb again after that. Ninety-five per cent of exports are non-controversial, if you accept that sales to Saudi Arabia are acceptable. Sales to places like Indonesia and Turkey are tiny, and nobody buys our small arms in any quantity because you can buy a Kalashnikov for £20," Mr Sharman said.

Among exports going ahead last year were a consignment of tanks for Indonesia. Small arms were exported to countries such as Kenya, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, where security forces have shot at civilians.

There was also doubt about whether some of the arms were really going to the users named on the licences. For example, components for military aircraft and naval vessels were exported to the Channel Islands, which do not have a navy or air force. More licences for small arms were granted from Britain to the Channel Islands than from Britain to France.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said it seemed arms brokers in Britain were "driving a coach and horses" through the regulations on arms exports. "This is another strong argument for licensing arms brokers in the UK, with penalties for breaching the law or government policy on arms sales," he said.

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