Politics: Labour takes ethical arms policy to EU

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The Government will today try to convert European partners to its ethical foreign and arms trading policies. Kim Sengupta examines radical and controversial proposals being put forward to exercise international control on the weapons of death.

Tony Blair's government is convinced that ethical arms trading is not an unrealistic and altruistic concept. And Britain will be using its presidency of the European Union to attempt pushing through the most far-reaching controls ever attempted on the arms trade.

Today Tony Lloyd, the minister of state at the Foreign Office, will unfurl a raft of measures in Stockholm for concerted EU action to stop the arming of repressive totalitarian regimes, and to curb illicit trading by private arms dealers.

Speaking at a seminar of the influential security pressure group Saferworld, Mr Lloyd will present a series of key policy proposals.

The fundamental plank would be an EU Code of Conduct under which member states would be banned from "quietly undercutting" another which has refused to supply an export licence. Thus unsavoury customers would not be able to play off one supplier against the other. When Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, warned Indonesian leaders he would cut off arms supplies unless they improved their human rights record, their foreign minister, Ali Atlas, said other arms dealing countries were already "knocking at our door".

Making the code legally binding is deemed to be unrealistic, but it is intended as a Council Declaration, breaches of whivh would result in serious political consequences.

The second priority would be to persuade the rest of the EU to adopt Britain's ban on instruments of torture such as electric shock devices and leg irons and shackles. It is believed unofficial soundings at government level indicate most member states will be in favour of this. The British government hopes this will pave the way for an eventual global ban on such equipment.

The EU would also be urged to crack down on illicit arms trafficking. This was discussed during the preceding Dutch presidency, but London is determined that this should be carried through once it takes the chair. Over 50 per cent of the traffic in light weaponry is believed to be illicitly traded.The Foreign Office has agreed to fund a seminar on the subject in Southern Africa.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden are all significant arms exporters. Mr Lloyd will say the Government does not "believe that the arms trade as a whole is immoral. Article 51 of the UN Charter makes it clear that countries have a right to act in self defence". But he will add that the world has seen 18 million lives lost in wars and other civil conflicts since l945, and that by l988 some 200,000 children under the age of 16 were estimated to have participated in conflict.

Mr Lloyd will add : "The days when British ministers arrived at meetings in Brussels dressed in bullet-proof jackets are over. The Government sees Europe as an opportunity not a threat ... it has a particularly important role to play in the area of arms exports.

"Taken together, these various elements [the arms control proposals] add to an ambitious agenda ... I am convinced the effort will be worth it".