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Arms trade 'undermines efforts to relieve debt'

The world's richest nations stand accused of double standards - exporting billions of pounds worth of arms to poor countries while discussing measures to lift them out of poverty.

In a joint report published today, pressure groups including Oxfam and Amnesty International say the G8 countries are compounding the problems in developing nations, including much of Africa, by allowing them to import costly arms and weapons.

Tomorrow, G8 foreign ministers, meeting in London, will consider a proposal by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary for a watertight worldwide treaty covering small arms as well as major weapons. Although today's report strongly endorses his proposal, it could also prove embarrassing because it criticises Britain over its arms exports.

According to the report, Britain is the world's second biggest arms supplier with exports estimated at $4.3bn (£2.2bn) between 1996 and 2003, less than America's $15.18bn but more than other G8 nations such as France ($3.02bn), Russia ($2.62bn) and Germany ($1.08bn). The five countries are the world's biggest arms exporters, accounting for 84 per cent of the global trade.

The pressure groups express concern that open licences for multiple shipments issued by Britain for exports to Turkey could allow weapons to be sent on to other countries with whom Britain would not trade directly. They say Britain has licensed arms exports to countries with serious human rights concerns, including Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Israel and Indonesia. They also raise fears that the Government is not putting enough resources and staff behind new legislation on arms control which took effect last year.

The United States is accused of providing military aid to states guilty of persistent human rights violations including Pakistan, Nepal and Israel, while France is alleged to have exported bombs, grenades, ammunition and mines and to countries subject to EU arms embargoes, such as Burma and Sudan.

The pressure groups warn that the trade could jeopardise Britain's goal during its year in the G8 presidency of relieving global poverty because the purchase of arms diverts resources in poor countries.

The report says: "Many of the G8 countries are large donors to aid programmes in Africa and Asia. However, continuing arms transfers to developing countries undermine their pledges to relieve debt, combat Aids, alleviate poverty, tackle corruption and promote good governance." It also warns that the arms could be used to suppress human rights and democracy.

It accuses the G8 nations of not matching their rhetoric about arms sales and Africa with action. "G8 governments have left significant loopholes in their own arms export standards and control mechanisms. Their efforts to control arms exports are not in proportion to the G8's global responsibility," the report says.

The Foreign Office defended Britain's record, saying that export licence applications were considered on a case-by-case basis and were blocked if there was a risk they would be used for "internal repression or external aggression".

But a spokesman admitted: "There is currently no international treaty that sets binding global standards. The irresponsible and unregulated trade in these arms inflicts untold misery in some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations, so it is vital to tighten the net to eliminate blatantly irresponsible trading and ensure legitimate trade is properly regulated and not diverted to undesirable purposes or end-users."

Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, said: "Each year hundreds of thousands of people are killed, tortured, raped and displaced through the misuse of arms.

"How can G8 commitments to end poverty and injustice be taken seriously if some of the very same governments are undermining peace and stability by deliberately approving arms transfers to repressive regimes?"