Leading Article: The smoking gun at Royal Ordnance

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The Independent Online
ON THE principle that it is impossible to touch pitch and not be defiled, many people believe that no country claiming to pursue a moral foreign policy can export arms. This view is more fashionable outside governments than inside. Japan is the only major industrial nation with an outright ban on the sale of its weapons abroad.

In Britain, successive governments have taken a different tack. They have insisted that it is still possible to be one of the world's leading weapons makers while restraining the commercial incentive to help distant belligerents to kill each other's civilians and destroy each other's cultural treasures.

The delicate logic required to sustain this policy makes the allegations reported in the Independent yesterday and on Wednesday particularly alarming. It has been claimed in a German court this week that Royal Ordnance, the now privatised weapons manufacturer, connived with the managers of Heckler & Koch to circumvent Germany's arms export laws by providing documents suggesting falsely that arms destined for the Contras and for Iraq would in fact be used in Britain.

The Independent has separately discovered that a year after arms exports to the Serbs were embargoed by the United Nations, sniper rifles made by Royal Ordnance's German subsidiary were delivered to Belgrade. Such weapons, described by their makers as 'hunting rifles', have since been used by Serb irregulars to kill unarmed civilian Muslim women and children in Sarajevo and elsewhere.

This raises a number of questions. Did Royal Ordnance use the respectability it inherited from its days under the wing of the British government to circumvent German law? What did ministers know about the exporting activities of the firm and its subsidiaries? When the firm was sold to British Aerospace in 1987, what controls were put in place to ensure that its behaviour would henceforth be monitored as vigilantly as that of any other private weapons manufacturer?

So far, these questions have come up against a wall of silence. If necessary, ministers and civil servants must be brought back from their New Year holidays to answer these questions, and to explain exactly who knew what and how policy on this matter was set. Later on, Lord Justice Scott will no doubt wish to go into the matter as part of his inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq affair. But the moral is becoming increasingly clear: the longer British policy on these matters continues to be both decided and carried out in secret, the greater will be the discredit to our political system and the harm to our national interests.