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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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