British arms sales: A step towards transparency, but many more are needed

This information was only released through the efforts of one Committee

Share
Related Topics

The publication by the Foreign Office of an annual report on human rights and democracy is a good thing. It does, however, also mean that it would be seen as hypocritical for the British government to supply arms and intelligence equipment to repressive regimes.

The fact that it has done so would not be a major surprise in the world of realpolitik. What makes it so astonishing is the sheer scale of it, more than 3,000 export licences worth a staggering £ 12.3 billion, to those on its own official list for abuse.

Sir John Stanley, the redoubtable chairman of the  Committee on Arms Export Controls, a former defence minister, knew as a Whitehall veteran that expressions of good intentions by government are all too often not matched by deeds. After the Foreign Office began publishing its human rights reports he wrote to Vince Cable, the business secretary, to get details of the licences which have been issued.

“The figures involved would be so large – I thought someone may have added some zeros by mistake; £12bn is an absolutely huge sum. I asked Vince Cable to confirm they were accurate and, apart from a small adjustment for Iran, they all were” Sir John recalled. Further inquiries elicited that one contract alone, for Israel and the occupied territories, came to £ 7.7 billion.

For some of the items the catch-all words are ‘dual use’, components which can have both civilian and military functions. What we do not know is what they have actually been used for or, indeed, how much the British government knows about this. At a very basic level, the accountability of agents acting between the manufacturers and purchasers seem to be a very loose concept.

There are no ambiguities about some of the supplies. For example Sri Lanka — whose forces have been accused of rape, torture and murder of civilians — received assault rifles, combat shotguns, body armour and military vehicles. China, whose human rights record is routinely criticised by the UK, got components for military helicopters, military radars and lasers.

There are, actually, cases where supplying specific military material is justified despite unpalatable and disturbing developments taking place; the consequences of not doing so may be to make the situation worse.

The report states that Libya is receiving military equipment despite the bloodshed which is taking place there. But, in fact, the scale of that has been quite limited compared to what it could have been — just look at another ‘Arab Spring’ state, Syria. The fledgling administration in Tripoli needs the supplied forces to counter the militias and to try to tackle the strife. Afghanistan, too, is mentioned. Yes, there are rights violations taking place there. But the Afghan government is an ally fighting an Islamist insurgency and there is no evidence that cutting off supplies will suddenly lead to peace breaking out.

There is a debate to be had about whether there should be flexibility on individual countries. But for that to take place there needs to be what is singularly lacking on this matter; adequate transparency. We have only got these statistics thanks to the efforts of this particular Committee. One can only hope that in its response to the report the Government will be much more forthcoming than it has been hitherto. The public can make up its own mind about arms exports and human rights.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee