While the Labour Government of the United Kingdom (UK) has introduced positive arms export policy changes in the past 10 years, these policies have been undermined by poor implementation and decisions that appear to contradict stated criteria. This paper, authored by Mark Curtis, Helen Close, Vanessa Dury and Roy Isbister, examines the Labour Government’s arms export policy and identifies a number of “good” policy developments, “bad” policy implementation and “ugly” practices.
As the world’s second largest arms exporter, UK arms export decisions have considerable import. Since 1997, Labour has rewritten UK export control laws and shown arms export leadership in the EU and international arenas. However, the good policies have been undermined by flawed implementation and practices that raise ethical concerns.
The following is a sampling of the Government’s record on arms export control:
- The export of torture equipment and land mines has been banned.
- The government championed an EU-wide Code of Conduct on Arms Exports during the UK Presidency in 1998.
- Passage of the 2002 Export Control Act tightened some aspects of Britain’s arms trade.
- Regular reports on strategic export controls, including information on export licences issued, have been introduced.
- The Government co-led the 2006 United Nations process calling for an international arms trade treaty.
- While public reporting on export licences has improved, reporting on arms export deliveries is poor.
- The Government has failed to regulate arms companies’ overseas subsidiaries and licensed production overseas, despite the risk they pose for downstream arms proliferation.
- There is a seeming reluctance to adequately enforce breaches of the Government’s controls.
- The 2001 Labour manifesto pledge to crack down on all arms brokering has not been honoured.
- The Government has rejected persistent calls for a parliamentary committee to scrutinise arms exports before they occur.
- Government defence industry subsidies are worth between £453 and £935 million a year.
- The Government has failed to treat arms trade corruption seriously, as demonstrated by the recent decision to halt the Serious Fraud Office’s inquiry into corruption in arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
- The Government has failed to regulate adequately the transfer of components that will be incorporated into weapons systems in the recipient country for onward export.
- It has licensed the sale of inappropriate equipment to some of the world’s least developed countries and approved arms exports to countries with no real need for the equipment.
- It has approved exports to both sides in confrontations between India and Pakistan, increasing the risk of regional conflict.
- Iraq has become a large British arms market, despite concern about the reliability of the recipients of these arms.
- Over £110 million of military and “other” equipment has been licensed for export to Israel, throughout a period of offensive operations in the Occupied Territories and war with Lebanon.
The future direction of UK arms export should include:
- Rigorous application of the Government’s own policy criteria;
- Tackling arms export corruption;
- Improved transparency and accountability of arms export policy and practices;
- Strengthening of the Export Control Act and its implementation and enforcement; and
- International leadership on arms export controls.