Creating people's geographies
Richard Norton-Taylor :: Thursday August 3, 2006 :: The Guardian
The government must explain why it continues to approve the sale of arms to Israel in apparent breach of its own guidelines, a cross-party committee of senior backbenchers demand today.In a hard-hitting report, MPs from four Commons committees say arms sales are regularly approved to countries the government itself censures because of their poor human rights record.
The report also exposes loopholes which allow companies to sell products – often via the internet – that are officially banned, including equipment such as “thumb cuffs” and “wall cuffs” used in torture.
The government last year approved £22.5m worth of arms-related exports to Israel, almost twice the amount in 2004. They included components for combat helicopters, aircraft radars and air-to-surface missiles. British companies also make crucial parts for US-made Apache helicopters and display units for US F-16s, both used by Israeli forces in Lebanon and the occupied territories.
Government guidelines say export licences would not be agreed if there was a “clear risk” they might be used for internal repression or would “provoke or prolong armed conflict or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts”. Ministers have also said they would block the sale of equipment which could be deployed “aggressively” in the occupied territories.
The MPs say the government must explain how British officials in Israel “who are observing the use to which exported equipment is put carry out their work”. It would help, they add, if the government gave examples of equipment blocked for export to Israel.
“The only thing that matters is end use – who uses it, and to what purpose,” said Roger Berry, Labour chairman of the quadripartite committee which unanimously approved today’s report and included members of the Commons foreign affairs, defence, international development and trade and industry select committees.
MPs want to know “what the [government’s] policy actually means and how it is implemented in practice”, Mr Berry told the Guardian. In a reference to Israel, he asked: “If the guidelines do not apply in those circumstances, where do they apply?”
Margaret Beckett was yesterday threatened with legal action unless she bans the supply of British military equipment to Israel. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, has written to the foreign secretary saying the sale of arms to Israel is unlawful and makes Britain complicit in breaches of international law by Israel.
Ministers are also facing possible legal action by allowing US planes carrying bombs to Israel to use British airfields. British officials made clear yesterday that the goverment will continue to allow the flights to land here to refuel. “Provided proper procedures are met, permission will be granted,” said a Foreign Office spokesman.
After the row over US planes carrying weapons bound for Israel landing at Prestwick in Scotland, future flights are likely to use military rather than civilian airfields.
Two flights diverted from Prestwick last weekend were seen at the US airforce base at Mildenhall in Suffolk. Peace campaigners say they have also seen a cargo plane with markings in Hebrew at the RAF base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The flights are believed to have been carrying “bunker buster” bombs, with depleted uranium warheads. A Glasgow-based human rights lawyer, Aamer Anwar, said the government’s actions violated the European human rights convention, the Geneva convention, and the International Criminal Court Act 2001. “There’s no point in repeatedly saying it’s a breach of international law and nobody trying to get to court,” he said. “We will try.”
In their report today on the arms trade, the MPs say Britain still does not ban trade in items used in torture, including thumb cuffs, wall cuffs and “sting sticks” – Chinese-made metal rods with barbs attached. The case for banning them immediately was overwhelming, say the MPs.
The government argues that it cannot add anything to its list of banned items without the agreement of its European partners. Such equipment in future will be controlled by an “EU torture regulation”, says today’s report.
Evidence about trade in torture equipment seen by the committee was gathered by Mark Thomas, the political activist and comedian, and by the Guardian, partly from London arms fairs. The committee says the government must in future “actively seek out breaches of export controls at arms fairs”. The MPs say the government must police the internet looking for companies “promoting or pursuing business in breach of export controls”.
· The MPs say Britain’s arms export policy must be more transparent
· The government must explain its approval of arms sales to Israel
· The MPs question the sale of arms to countries with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia
· Arms embargo on China must stay
· The MPs express concern about the way British Land Rovers, made under licence in Turkey, were used by Uzbek troops during the Andijan massacre last year
· The government must do more to find out how British equipment with dual (civil as well as military) purposes is used abroad
· Companies which use the internet to breach arms export controls must be vigorously pursued