Indonesia crisis: Made in Britain: the tanks on Jakarta's streets

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The Independent Online
THE USE by the Indonesian security forces of British-bought arms to control pro-democracy protests in Jakarta has underlined one glaring truth of the arms business: that whatever the assurances to the contrary, an exporter has no means of preventing an authoritarian regime turning such weaponry against its own people.

The Scorpion light tanks seen on the streets of the capital are among 50, according to the latest survey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), supplied to the Suharto regime by the previous Conservative government, in return for assurances they would not be used to suppress internal political dissent.

As well as the Scorpions, Britain has sold armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars and watercannon (in addition to more than 50 Hawk trainer aircraft which reportedly have been used against rebels in East Timor but which have little purpose in the current standoff).

The question is, whether the supply of such weaponry has continued even after the arrival of new Labour and its "ethical" foreign policy, placing a primacy on human rights. Last year, the new government allowed through a sale of Hawk aircraft which had been authorised by the Tories. But, despite denials as recently as last week by the Foreign Secretary, charges have been levelled that Scorpions of the type seen in the past few days in Jakarta have been exported since last May. The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, led by Lord Avebury, claims that Scorpions have found their way to Indonesia in "kit" form, and that they could have been deployed in the latest unrest.

In the Commons last week, the Government admitted that 51 licences to Indonesia had been granted in the past year, mostly in the categories of aircraft and electronic equipment, but including small arms, riot control gear, armoured goods and training equipment.

In fact, the disclosure raises more questions than it answers.

Under its proclaimed doctrine of "transparency", this government is committed to producing a first annual report on Britain's arms exports, which should be published within two months. But the value of the exercise, activists say, will depend entirely on the detail provided.

"Under the current system, the information is so vague, and the categories so broad that it's very difficult to tell what exactly is being exported," says Andy McLean, of the Saferworld foreign affairs research group.

"For instance, in one case, equipment was listed under category ML7, defined as `riot control agents, and related equipment'. Then we were told the licence was for power-station boiler suits."

The hope now is that the Government will realise the political damage of not revealing the full truth in a situation like Indonesia - merely fanning the suspicion that Mr Cook's ethical foreign policy of denying arms of repression to undemocratic regimes is honoured in the breach.

But many opponents of arms exports argue that ambiguities such as those in Britain's dealings with Indonesia only strengthen the case for a total ban on weapons sales to repressive regimes.

Britain is now second only to the United States as a global arms exporter.