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

The less said the worse
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The Independent Online
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.