Britain accused of arms-sales betrayal

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The Government yesterday announced its much-heralded tougher guidelines for arms exports to countries with dubious human rights records. But they leave intact the bitterly contested pounds 160m deal to sell Hawk jets to Indonesia, and were instantly assailed by some critics as a betrayal of the "ethical" foreign policy announced just 11 days ago by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Under the new criteria, export licences will not be granted in cases where there was a "clearly identifiable risk" that the weapons could be used for internal repression, or foreign aggression, by the purchasing country. Separately, Mr Cook announced a total ban on the manufacture and export by British companies of instruments of torture, including electric- shock batons, stun guns and leg irons, and will campaign for the European Union to impose similar restrictions as a first step towards a global ban.

Crucially, however, yesterday's measures are not backdated, meaning that agreements authorised by the last government with Indonesia and elsewhere are safe. Legal considerations appear to have been decisive. It would be "neither practical nor realistic" to revoke the deals, officials said - though they insisted that Britain had no evidence that the Hawks supplied by British Aerospace were being used to suppress dissent in East Timor, seized by Indonesia in 1975. Subsequent deals would be reviewed on their merits, but no new applications are currently on the table. The announcement gave a green light to British Aerospace to go ahead with the Indonesian order for 16 Hawk fighters. Alvis Industries will also be able to complete Indonesia's order for 100 Saracen light tanks, worth pounds 150m. If Britain had cancelled the contracts it would have been forced to pay millions of pounds in compensation.

The omission has enraged some Labour MPs and humanitarian groups. Ann Clwyd, chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, said she was dismayed by a decision "which flies in the face" of Labour's human rights policy. The World Development Movement said the Foreign Secretary had "failed the first test" of his new "ethical foreign policy", while the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, called the the failure to act against Indonesia "profoundly disappointing".

Even though the Government has raised the threshold for approval by vetoing exports which "might be used" for internal repression - more stringent than the previous wording banning sales of arms "likely to be used" for such purposes - the new guidelines fall indisputably short of a watertight guarantee that British arms will not slip through the human rights net.

However, officials insisted that the human rights criteria would take precedence over any considerations of British national interest such as jobs and exports. They acknowledged that though the new guidelines were clearer, the Government would still have to make subjective, case-by-case judgements - "these won't be just computer decisions".

Thus the potential wiggle room. Moral or immoral, arms exports are a huge business, accounting for 90,000 defence industry jobs. In 1996, such sales totalled over pounds 5bn, a quarter of the world total and putting Britain second only to the US in the global arms trade. Indonesia bought pounds 438m of British equipment last year, but even that substantial figure is dwarfed by the pounds 2bn of sales to Saudi Arabia.

Mr Cook promised yesterday to produce an annual report on arms sales. He will press other EU countries to introduce similar restrictions, as a first step to a world-wide ban. Only thus will he be able to parry the fallback argument of every arms exporter, that "if we don't, someone else will".