Tear gas used against Hong Kong protestors was produced by a UK arms company. Photo: Getty
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From Hong Kong to Israel: why arms export controls are broken

When the UK sells weapons it not only facilitates the attacks they are used in, it also signals an approval for the governments that are carrying them out.

The last few months have shown that the UK's arms export controls system is broken. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the cases of Hong Kong and Israel. The situations may be very different, but the UK's weak and complacent position has been entirely consistent.

Only last week it was revealed that tear gas produced by UK arms company Chemring was being used against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

In light of the revelations Chemring said it will review its policy, but the government hasn't even done that.

On the contrary, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has ruled out even reviewing any of the current export licences to Hong Kong. He went further than usual, explicitly making the facetious argument that if Hong Kong didn't use UK tear gas it would simply get it from somewhere else. He told the BBC “CS gas is available from large numbers of sources around the world. To be frank, I think that is a rather immaterial point. They could buy CS gas from the US.”

This doesn't just imply a worrying lack of understanding about his own role in overseeing the regulation of the arms trade, it also points to the deliberate and explicit weakening of export controls.

A similar thing happened in August when a report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)  found that there were up to 12 active licences for UK arms that could have been used in the recent bombardment of Gaza. The report, which was signed-off by Vince Cable, concluded that the licences would be suspended, but only in the event of any "resumption of significant hostilities".

The temporary ceasefire fell apart only eight days later and gave way to another week of bloodshed, and yet the licences remained in place. The conflict killed over 2000 people, with the UK doing nothing meaningful to stop it. That is why we at Campaign Against Arms Trade have instructed our law firm, Leigh Day, to begin legal action against BIS to challenge its decision.

What these examples have in common is that they are representative of an arms control policy that focuses on maximising sales rather than limiting them.

The role that ministers like Cable and Hammond play in promoting arms deals isn't limited to signing them off. Both of their departments play an active role in encouraging them. In less than 12 months the government will be playing host to the bi-annual DSEI arms fair in East London. This is one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and will bring hundreds of major arms companies together with some of the worst dictators. How can the UK credibly claim to be furthering human rights and democracy when it is actively courting tyrants?

On paper the UK's licensing criteria is very clear. It says that licences should be revoked if there is ever a "clear risk" that equipment "might" be used in violation of international humanitarian law or internal repression. This must be assessed at the time the licensing decision is made. By any reasonable interpretation this should prohibit all future arms sales to countries like Israel or Hong Kong.

When the UK sells weapons it not only facilitates the attacks they are used in, it also signals an approval for the governments that are carrying them out. Changing this won't just require the cancellation of a few licences, it will need a complete overhaul of government priorities and an end to the hypocrisy that is at the heart of foreign policy.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @wwwcaatorguk

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.