Labour's arms policy - so where are the ethics?

The less said the worse

Share
Related Topics
If Labour's new trade ministers had arrived at their offices to find them awash with the previous occupants' beer cans and fag ends, they would surely have complained. So why, when they discovered the extent of a much more serious mess over arms sales, did they just quietly set about clearing it up? This week's revelation that the British taxpayer may foot a pounds 3bn bill (including more than pounds 1bn in highly controversial arms deals) for exports to Asian countries now in dire economic straits does not seem to have set many alarm bells ringing in Whitehall. In fact, a further pounds 300m sale of 16 Hawk jets to Indonesia will go ahead despite that country's economic traumas.

Seven months before the general election, Labour's conference voted to review export credit guarantees, a quarter of which are used to underwrite arms deals. But apart from ending backing for arms deals with some of the most deeply indebted Third World countries, the Government has had nothing to say on the subject. This Government may say it believes in a moral dimension to arms dealing, but so far it has done little to prove that commitment. Instead, it continues to tidy up the remains of existing deals that give off a nasty whiff.

Indonesia, for example, owes Britain pounds 800m for arms that many voters believe should never have been sold in the first place. These include armoured cars that were used to put down pro-democracy demonstrations and Hawks that may have been used in occupied East Timor. And Malaysia owes pounds 200m, dating back to the 1989 Pergau deal that linked a pounds 1bn arms sale to pounds 230m in aid for a new dam.

None of this was initiated by the Government, but its apparent acceptance of the situation feeds the suspicion that the arms industry can expect business as usual under new Labour. This can only be an impression, for there is precious little information available either to prove or disprove it.

We do know that in its manifesto Labour promised "transparency and accountability" on the granting of export licences for weapons. But we are less well informed about these matters now than we were under the Conservatives. They, at least, produced a list every six months explaining what had been exported to whom, and which deals had been blocked. Nine months into the new regime, no such list has yet been produced.

True, there have been computer problems. And true, the Conservatives' list was so vague as to be nearly useless. But it has been uninspiring to hear the Labour government promising details, first, by October 1997; then, by the end of the year; and now, "soon". And when the list does appear, what will it tell us? Only what happened under the Tories in the last half of 1996.

So, we must wait for the first annual report under Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy" to find out what Labour has been up to. We do not even know when this document will appear, though we hope for news by the summer. Meanwhile, we must try to read the trickle of information that emerges through the persistent questioning of a few determined MPs and pressure groups.

What, for example, do we know of recent deals with Indonesia, seen as a litmus test for Mr Cook's promise that Britain would not sell weapons that might be used for internal repression or external aggression? Again, information is sketchy. We do know that Labour has decided not to cancel any existing export licences. We also know that four licences, for rifles and Land-Rovers worth pounds 1m - small beer compared with the pounds 1bn Hawk contract - have been refused. While these four licences were disallowed, a further 22 (worth pounds 160m) went ahead. We do not know what these were for; although details of the blocked deals were leaked, no information has emerged on the rest. However, there are two outstanding applications for "toxicological agents", which could be similar to the chemicals recently sprayed over demonstrators.

There has been barely a peep out of the arms trade about Labour's new ethical policy. On the contrary, the chief executive of the Coventry armoured car manufacturer Alvis, which has contracts worth pounds 150m with Indonesia, appeared "relaxed" when he was interviewed recently by The Engineer magazine. He told its reporter: "We have high hopes of doing further business with Indonesia."

There are fears regarding Turkey, where the Kurds have been subjected to horrific repression. Details are sketchy but we know that 72 of 73 applications for arms export licences have been approved since May. Similarly, the Defence Export Sales Organisation has given optimistic projections for the next five years, predicting that Britain will secure defence sales of pounds 23.7bn and will hold its position as the world's second largest arms supplier.

Even news of the new European Code of Conduct on arms sales, which mirrors Britain's ethical policy, must come to us through leaks. Last week the French paper Liberation reported that Britain and France had agreed on a formula - if an EU country turns down an arms deal on moral grounds, another member state that hopes to pick up the business must give notice of its reasons. This is hardly likely to set knees knocking in the arms industry, but all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will say is that no deal has yet been finalised.

Although Labour itself has argued that the arms industry cannot be properly held to account without proper information, the concerned public continues to feed on nothing but rumour and innuendo. What, for example, are we to make of unconfirmed reports that Tony Blair was angered by Robin Cook's decision to block those four Indonesian licences? The Government may have committed itself to an annual report, but it has not offered the sort of Parliamentary scrutiny of arms deals that exists, for example, in Sweden. Nor has it promised a central database of accredited arms dealers - something pressure groups and charities have argued hard for.

Before he took office Robin Cook clearly believed that his new ethical policy could cut through the conflicting demands of commerce and human rights. In Government, he has yet to demonstrate that his new broom will sweep away the detritus of the Tories' infatuation with the arms trade.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Harvey Proctor's home was raided by the Met under a warrant investigating historical child sexual abuse  

Harvey Proctor: A gay sex ring in Westminster? I don't believe it

Harvey Proctor
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk