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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.