Letter: Senior officers call for tighter curbs on arms exports

Sir: The Scott Report into the arms-to-Iraq scandal, published a year ago today, demonstrated the urgent need for a stricter approach to weapons transfers. The case for restraint is often argued on humanitarian grounds. What is not stated is that our own armed forces are endangered by ill-conceived exports. This is a powerful rationale for stricter export controls.

There are compelling military reasons for tightly regulating arms sales to regions of tension and instability. The "boomerang effect" has resulted in European troops facing weapons supplied by their own governments in peace-keeping operations in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. During the Gulf war, Allied forces faced the heavily armed Iraqi forces, equipped as a result of the export of arms and military equipment from the European Union in the 1980s.

It is important that our forces have the best weapons available, but it is often argued that in order to subsidise the cost of developing new technology we need to export new weapons systems. With constrained defence budgets, the export potential of new projects is now a major consideration for any future development. For example, the UK government is already marketing the Eurofighter in the Middle East before the project has reached completion. By freely exporting the same weapons used by our own forces we are arming potential future opponents and so have to develop more new equipment to retain any technological edge.

Unilateral approaches to restraint are often confounded by a fear of loss of trade - "If we don't do it someone else will". Tougher control and restraint measures are therefore required at a national, European, and internatonal level. Support continues to build for the introduction of a code of conduct on the arms trade at the ongoing EU Inter-Governmental Conference.

Accompanied by similar initiatives in the US and the UN, the introducton of such a code would significantly reduce the levels of human rights abuses, conflict, death and destruction caused by irresponsible arms exports to repressive regimes and regions of tension. The code of conduct would also help safeguard the lives of our own forces.

The opportunity to implement an EU code of conduct exists now - but it needs the support of Britain. We would urge the Government to support this initiative.

General Sir HUGH BEACH

Field Marshal Lord CARVER


London WC1