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.