Respect for regulation

The arms trade and respect for human rights are not necessarily incompatible, argues Beverley Duckworth

British businessman Patrick Foster was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in 1993 for illegally drinking alcohol. He found himself chained and shackled in leg-irons. It was somewhat ironic, he observed in a diary of his experiences, that `the shackles and cuffs in this establishment are made by Hiatts in England’.

Soon after coming to power, the Labour Government introduced a ban on the export of torture equipment, illustrating its determination to change its approach to arms exports. It also underlined its commitment to support a strong defence industry.

Respect for human rights and the arms trade are not incompatible, if the arms sold are for legitimate defence purposes. The key is effective regulation and monitoring to ensure that arms exports are only used by the designated recipient for agreed purposes, and not to commit human rights violations.

Unfortunately, existing controls are completely inadequate, resulting in stories of `UK exports arming the oppressors’ and the entire arms industry being called into question. The recent debate surrounding East Timor is a case in point.

If a company wants to export military or security equipment it must normally apply for a licence from the Department for Trade and Industry before doing so. But the DTI is responsible for promoting exports as well as controlling them, giving rise to a potential conflict of interest. The DTI is required to consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development on licences which may be of concern to them – but is not required to heed their advice.

Another problem with the export control system is that companies wishing to license overseas production do not require DTI approval. Licensed production agreements are increasingly supplementing, or taking the place of, direct export deals.

This has serious implications for British manufacturing, given that licensing deals mean an export of jobs from the UK. It also has human rights implications, since companies refused export licences can arrange for arms to be made in countries with weaker export controls.

In June 1995, Amnesty International called on all governments to halt the sale of certain arms to Turkey, as it believed they were likely to be used to commit human rights violations. In January 1998 UK firm Heckler and Koch won an $18m contract to transfer technology to Turkish firm MKEK to make 200,000 rifles for the Turkish army. Six months later, it was reported that MKEK was to export the guns to Indonesia’s police force – after the UK Government had refused four export licences for the same type of weapon to Indonesia.

The argument `if we don’t sell, someone else will’ is often used to defend unregulated arms sales. But to take that position not only places a UK worker’s job above another person’s life, it shows a lack of commitment on the part of governments to address the issue in a positive way.

The UK should be taking the lead in ensuring that we don’t sell to human rights violators. This is why the UK Government pushed so hard for an EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, agreed in June 1998.

Despite such positive steps there is a long way to go. We need new legislation on arms exports, which includes controls on licensed production deals, and stipulates mechanisms for effective monitoring. The challenge is for everyone involved to work together to ensure that the UK remains a strong competitor in the defence industry, while at the same time respecting human rights.

Beverley Duckworth is a human rights campaigner for Amnesty International UK