Human rights and wrongs make
Arms buyers run up sad tally of repression
Friday 23 May 1997
Indonesia will be the first acid test of the new Foreign Secretary's "ethical" foreign policy, with human rights at its heart. But there are plenty more challenges ahead. The British arms industry's single biggest customer is Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record is questionable. The Middle East and North Africa, an area of instability, is the largest buyer of British arms. In 1995, Britain sold pounds 912m worth of arms there, as against pounds 617m to Nato and western European countries, and pounds 441m to Asia and the Far East.
The Saferworld foundation, an independent think-tank, yesterday said that, besides Indonesia, three middle eastern states - Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, would be on their list of undesirables. Elsewhere in the world, they cited India and Pakistan, because of the dispute over Kashmir and because both have developed, or are developing, ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Other countries with bad human rights records are Malaysia and Britain's Nato ally, Turkey.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Britain exported $716m (pounds 436m) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia between 1992 and 1996, compared with $603m to Malaysia, $521m to Oman, $515m to Pakistan, $489m to UAE, $374m to India and $318m to Indonesia.
The Middle East illustrates the fickle nature of the foreign policy guidelines that surround arms sales. Libya, Iran and Iraq have all been cultivated as strategic allies by the West, and yet they are now regarded as major threats.
Saudi Arabia is entering an uncertain period. Prince Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, the new ruler, is 72 and not in the best of health. Tensions between Islamic fundamentalists and the educated middle classes are increasing. Its human rights record is well-known. Saudi Arabia has bought British Tornado and Hawk aircraft as part of the pounds 20bn Al-Yamamah arms-for-oil deal.
The British government will need to decide whether it will restrict the sale only of equipment likely to be used for internal repression, as the last government did, or whether it will refuse export licences for any arms to countries with poor human rights records.
In 1995 a television investigation revealed that British Aerospace had been involved in the sale of 8,000 electric shock batons to Saudi Arabia. The batons inflict pain using a brief 40,000 volt shock. Because the batons were not made in the UK, the sale was not illegal.
The ban on sales of arms which might be used for repression has not, so far, affected sales of major conventional arms which clearly cannot be. There has been a European Union embargo on arms sales to China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but each country is allowed to interpret this as it thinks fit. Last year, GEC-Marconi and Racal-Thorn were allowed to sell maritime and airborne radars to China. In a deal negotiated last summer, Racal agreed to supply six to eight of its Searchwater surveillance radars to the Chinese navy.
Turkey is another country with a questionable human rights record, and its continuing conflict with Kurdish separatists makes it difficult to distinguish between equipment for "internal repression" and conventional military operations. Amnesty International has referred to "gross human rights violations" in south-east Turkey.
"The human rights picture in Turkey is bleak", it said in a report last year. "The 1990s have seen the emergence of `disappearances' and extrajudicial executions."
Turkey's position as a member of Nato would make it difficult to ban sales. Recently, Vickers, the Newcastle based company which builds Britain's Challenger battle tanks, launched a campaign to win a pounds 3bn order for 800 Desert Challenger tanks, to be built in Turkey. Vickers was keen to win the order after Britain in effect abandoned an ambitious attempt to sell Saudi Arabia an entire armoured brigade, worth pounds 3.5bn. It is believed the that Saudi anger over the presence in London of the dissident Muhammad al-Masari was a key setback to the armoured brigade sale.
British involvement with countries that have a poor human rights record is not limited to equipment. Exactly a year ago, Britain signed an agreement with the UAE to provide troops for its defence in exchange for massive arms orders totalling more than pounds 2bn, including cruise missiles. Although the agreement stops short of a firm guarantee to defend the UAE if attacked, it provides for joint planning to enable a rapid reaction force to deploy to the Gulf.
Malaysia is also a big customer, but its human rights record is poor. The 1996 Amnesty International yearbook reported that at least 46 people had died in detention camps for illegal immigrants since 1993. Executions, floggings and detention without trial are common.
UK ARMS EXPORTS TO INDONESIA
Licences granted, 1993-1997
Class Issued Issued Issued Issued Issued
1993 1994 1995 1st 6 1/7/96 -
Small arms, 2 4 3
Large calibre 2 5 2 2
armaments such 2 5 2 2
as guns, mortars
Ammunition and 12 3 3 1
Bombs, torpedoes, 10 3 1
Fire control equipt, 5 6 7 1 1
Military vehicles, 2 4 14 3 7
such as tanks,
Toxicological agents, 1 2
riot control agents,
and related equipment
Military explosives 1 2
Combat vessels 2 4 1
Aircraft and aircraft 7 10 9 18 13
Electronic equipment 24 22 18 6 9
for military use
Armoured or 1 1 3 2 6
inc. helmets and
Equipment 6 4 8 2
Military imaging 6 1 9 4
Equipment and 2
Software specially 1 2 2
Explosive handling 1 7 1 1
Equipment specially 2
designed for the
use of military goods
Technology applicable 1 2 4
to the development
or use of goods
TOTAL NUMBER 83 73 89 43 41
Class 1 January 1996 1 July 1996
30 June 1996 18 March 1997
Small arms, including rifles, 2
carbines, pistols, weapons
specially designed for
Ammunition and components 1
Bombs, torpedoes, rockets, 1
missiles, mines etc.
Telescopic sights for firearms 1
Smooth-bore weapons 1
Offices: Department of Trade and Industry, Export Licences Issued in 1993; Department of Trade and Industry, Export Issued in 1994; Department of Trade and Industry, Export Licences Issued in 1995; House of Commons Debates, Written Answer, 21 March 1997.
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