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A tale of two committees

westminsterThe new year has brought CAAT a small but important campaign victory. For the first time, it seems that the Minister responsible for Human Rights at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will be consulted on priority markets for promotion of arms exports.

CAEC Committee 2010

To understand the background to this victory, we need to go back to 2010. CAAT had submitted written evidence to the parliamentary Committees for Arms Export Controls (CAEC) detailing our concerns about UKTI Defence & Security Organisation’s promotion of arms sales to repressive and authoritarian regimes, including those designated as “priority markets”.

In an oral evidence session before the Committee David Wilson, Vice Chair of the Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, representing arms companies, had assured the committee that the expanding markets were in the USA, and new EU members. No mention of Saudi Arabia or other nasty regimes.

CAAT wanted to put the record straight so we made a supplementary submission to CAEC stating:

“…the markets being prioritised are far from being limited to the USA and the newer EU members. The Government’s arms sales unit, the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), has a list of priority markets for 2010/11. These are Algeria, Australia, Brazil, Brunei, India, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the USA. (Hansard, 28.6.10, Col. 418-9W).”

CAAT pointed out that some of these countries had terrible human rights records, and were listed by the FCO as “countries of concern”.

CAEC Committee 2011

In early 2011 CAEC member Malcolm Bruce MP used CAAT’s information to question Trade Minister Mark Prisk. “….these [countries] are not immediate, natural allies. What is the Government’s policy, and what safeguards are there in promoting exports to countries such as the ones that I have identified?”

Prisk had no answer to the question of human rights and arms sales. Instead he waffled on about countries having genuine needs for self-defence – as if this was the only reason they would want to possess weaponry.

Thanks to CAAT, CAEC, including its members who also sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), were well aware of the priority list. CAEC Chairman, Sir John Stanley, a former Conservative Defence Minister, was quoted in the 2012 CAEC report as having pro-actively asked for the list in February 2012.

Foreign Affairs Committee 2012

The next act in this parliamentary pantomime took place in June 2012, when the then Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for human rights, Jeremy Browne, was called to give evidence before the FAC. The minister and his officials came under sustained questioning on whether it was right that countries classified by the FCO as “countries of concern” for their poor human right records should feature as “priority markets” for arms exports – in other words whether it was possible to reconcile human rights with arms exports.

The hapless minister floundered badly. When John Stanley asked (Q84): “Were you personally consulted by Dr Cable as to which countries should feature in what is called the priority markets list – the list of countries that will receive top arms export attention from the British Government?”, Mr Browne replied: “The Foreign Office would certainly be consulted. I cannot recall having a conversation, or substantive conversation, on that issue….”

When John Stanley said that he was “surprised and disappointed that you were not personally consulted” (Q85) and asked which countries featured on both lists, Browne replied that he did not have the BIS list so could not cross-reference. Stanley made a robust reply (Q86):

“Again, I find it disappointing that you are not familiar with the content of the two lists, particularly the countries that appear on both. Saudi Arabia and Libya appear both on the top priority markets list and, of course, on your countries of concern list. Do you not think it is highly detrimental to the credibility of the Government’s human rights policy that countries that feature as countries of concern as far as human rights are concerned also feature on the official Government list of countries for top arms export attention?”

Browne’s answer was hardly reassuring: “The others may wish to contribute, but I would make the observation that a country that buys arms may not necessarily use those arms to perpetrate human rights abuses.” (A few months later Jeremy Browne was reshuffled to a punishment post in the Home Office.)

Government response 2013

On 11 January 2013 the government published its response to the FAC. Answering concerns about the lack of consultation between BIS and the FCO on the list of priority markets for arms exports, it stated:

“Production of the list will continue to include close consultation with industry organisations and other government departments. UKTI DSO and the FCO will consult extensively before the draft priority list is submitted for approval through FCO Ministers, including the Minister responsible for human rights, to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. The list will take into account human rights concerns, export licensing and other restrictions that may limit export potential.”

What happens next?

So there it is. A happy ending to a convoluted tale. CAAT has raised awareness of the UKTI DSO priority markets for arms exports to the point that the Foreign Office Human Rights Minister may actually be consulted about it and at least be aware of its existence.

In the short-term, the change may not affect actual exports but there’s no doubt the government have been forced to act in a way they didn’t want to. It is important that anti-arms trade campaigners keep up the pressure on the government to ensure that this process actually happens and that ministers in BIS and the FCO face questioning on the decision process and outcomes.

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