Straw pledges curb on £15bn arms trade

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Jack Straw has vowed to lead a global drive to force the world's arms exporters to sign a treaty controlling the £15bn-a-year trade in conventional weapons.

Jack Straw has vowed to lead a global drive to force the world's arms exporters to sign a treaty controlling the £15bn-a-year trade in conventional weapons.

Warning that a person is shot dead every minute in the world, the Foreign Secretary said "more misery and destruction" was caused by smallarms than by tightly controlled weapons of mass destruction.

But British defence contractors may be more than happy with such a global treaty because that would put them on a "level playing field" with firms based in countries with a less stringent approach to monitoring arms exports.

While Labour promised a foreign policy with an "ethical dimension" almost eight years ago, ministers have faced continued to face controversy over British military exports to such nations as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, China and Israel. In 2003, Saudi Arabia was the largest buyer of British weapons, spending £198.3m. Other countries among the top 10 markets were India, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

More than $22bn a year is spent on arms by countries in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America. Half of this amount would enable every girl and boy in those regions to go to primary school. Among farmers in northern Uganda, AK-47 assault rifles have replaced spears as the weapon of choice, and in Somalia children are named AK or Uzi after guns.

Defence companies employ 200,000 people in Britain, a third of them working on foreign orders. And the UK's share of the multibillion-dollar global arms trade actually increased from 11.8 per cent in 2002, to 16.4 per cent in 2003. Britain is now the world's second-largest exporter of military hardware, with sales of $4bn (£2.2bn) a year, and three UK companies are among the 30 largest defence contractors in the world.

Mr Straw said legally binding controls could be drawn up on conventional arms exports to match those on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He promised to put the issue on the agenda of the June meeting of the foreign ministers of the G8 group of politically powerful nations, which he will chair.

He told a conference organised by the arms-reduction pressure group Saferworld: "The new treaty needs to include a wide range of signatories, including the world's major arms exporters. I certainly don't underestimate the difficulties of that. Many nations are concerned that a new arms trade treaty may restrict their defence industries, constrain their foreign policy; and lead to constant legal challenge of export licence decisions. Their approach may initially be one of scepticism, at best.

"But for it to work properly, a new arms control treaty will need to include as many of the world's nations as possible, especially those with strong defence industries of their own. Mr Straw said the treaty should cover weapons of all sizes, adding: "We don't want to leave gaps between weapons of mass destruction and smallarms which unscrupulous nations and exporters can exploit."

Defence experts said there was much for British-based companies to be positive about in Mr Straw's proposals.

Tom Shiner, of Jane's Defence Weekly, suggested that if an international treaty could be regulated, as Mr Straw foresees, it would "globalise many of the restrictions UK firms already face".

Anti-arms trade campaigners said it would have to stop the supply of components, where British firms have managed to exploit loopholes in domestic legislation to sell parts of weapons to countries such as Zimbabwe, Israel, Indonesia and the Philippines.

UK parts were fitted to American F-16 jets allegedly used by the Israelis to bomb Palestinian settlements and arms were supplied to India and Pakistan as they came close to war over Kashmir. Hawk jets have been sold to Indonesia, which repressed dissent in East Timor and Aceh province.

Simon Gray, Oxfam's conflict campaign manager, said: "Today could be a turning point for millions of people who live in fear of armed violence."

But Andrew Wood, a spokes-man for Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: "The Government has made arms-export policy more transparent since taking office but it still allows arms to be sold to repressive regimes and conflict zones. Given that arms companies call the shots on government arms-export policy, we're concerned the treaty won't be worth the paper it's written on."

A LETHAL BUSINESS

* In 2003, global military expenditure and the arms trade was estimated to be $950bn

* One person a minute is killed by small arms

* 14 billion ammunition rounds and eight million small arms are made every year.

* There are 639 million small arms on the planet, 60 per cent in civilian hands. There are more guns in the world than cars. In the Democratic Republic of Congo there are 800,000 illegal guns.

* 300,000 child soldiers are involved in conflicts.

* About one million guns are lost or stolen every year.

* War costs the African economy $15bn a year.

* Countries in the developing world spend an average of $22bn a year on arms. Half that would enable every child in those regions to go to primary school.

* Amnesty International reports that state-sponsored torture and ill-treatment - mostly by armed police - was persistent in more than 70 countries between 1997 and 2000.

* The top five countries in arms exports are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US ($9.7bn a year), UK ($4bn), Russia ($3.6bn), France ($1bn), and China ($500m). They are together responsible for 88% of sales.

* Britain's largest markets are Saudi Arabia, the US, Malaysia, Germany, Italy, India, France, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Oman.

* Three of the 30 largest defence companies are British: BAE Systems (3rd), Rolls Royce (18th), and Smiths Group (26th).

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