Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Oxfam GB


  Oxfam GB works to relieve poverty, distress and suffering in over 70 countries in four continents. Much of this work is in direct response to armed conflicts and their consequent human suffering: civilian deaths, injuries, the destruction of livelihoods, and the millions of displaced people and refugees forced from their homes.

  The prolific transfer of arms, particularly small arms and light weapons, into the regions where Oxfam works has exacerbrated many conflicts. The ready availability of arms has led to persistent violence against civilians, has prevented the delivery of vital humanitarian assistance, and undermined opportunities for long-term development.

  Poorly controlled arms flows therefore both exacerbate the suffering which Oxfam exists to relieve—and are an obstacle to that relief. Oxfam therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to tighten up controls on arms flows—and the opportunity to comment on this White Paper. It has also welcomed discussion with officials at the DTI and other departments.


  Some of the issues addressed in the White Paper fall outside Oxfam's direct experience. We have therefore limited our comments to those areas where we believe that a strengthening of the law over arms export controls could have material benefit in reducing the humanitarian suffering associated with the transfer of arms to sensitive destinations. We make further recommendations beyond those already contained in the White Paper. This should not be interpreted as being critical of the broad thrust of the White Paper, but an attempt to concentrate on areas where we believe it could be improved.

  Oxfam recognises that the UK is not always a major supplier of arms to sensitive destinations. But it is a key player in the international arms market—currently the second largest supplier of arms to the developing world according to the US Congressional Research Service. We believe that legislation stemming from this White Paper will present an opportunity to place the UK's own house in order, and also to set an example of best practice to others—a firm foundation for the development of more restrictive international export controls.

2.1  Parliamentary Scrutiny:

  Transparency is a central pre-requisite of a responsible and restrictive arms export policy. The combination of low-quality information held in Government records, and a lack of openess to Parliament, has led in the past to the inadequate scrutiny of arms sales—which in turn has led to ill-judged exports to countries where armed conflicts, human rights violations or continuing poverty have raised grave concerns. For example, government records indicate that over recent years, the UK has licensed sales of small arms and ammunition to 42 countries where Oxfam works. Nineteen recipients of UK arms were classified by the IMF as Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). In Africa, 71 per cent of countries in recipt of UK arms were suffering either political violence, low or high intensity conflict.

2.1  (a)   Annual reporting process:

  Through the legislation flowing from the White Paper, it should become a statutory obligation for the present and future Governments to publish detailed annual reports on strategic exports—and for these to be put before relevant Parliamentary bodies. Without this, there is a greater risk that a future Government may reverse the moves towards greater transparency which the forthcoming annual report on strategic exports is likely to represent.

  Future annual reports should contain a level of detail which allows for effective parliamentary scrutiny. A minimum would include:

    —  detailed breakdowns of the types of equipment exported;

    —  the numbers of all items exported to individual countries;

    —  their prospective end-user;

    —  a breakdown of export licenses refused.

  Without this level of detail, it will not be possible to differentiate between, for example, small-scale exports of sporting guns or larger orders of assault rifles or sub-machine guns to military or police end-users. At present, the Government is unable to demonstrate that it is fulfilling its own stated aims for strategic exports.

  This level of detail will also be required to make the annual reporting of the EU Code of Conduct on arms transfers an effective exercise. We recommend that the UK leads the way in the EU by proposing a public annual reporting on the Code meeting the above details.

2.1  (b)   Pre-notification to committee

  The Government's greater transparency in reporting on past strategic exports, particularly if developed to the level of detail above, will be extremely important. It should not however be seen as an alternative to transparency in the process of deciding upon export licences. The prior notification of proposed licences to an effective Parliamentary body would reduce the risks of unwise licence approvals, potentially negative humanitarian consequences and political damage to the Government when they are discovered.

  Different forms of prior notification in the United States and Sweden have not hampered their defence industries' ability to compete on the international arms market. Indeed their governments have the same concerns which have been put forward in the UK as a reason for not permitting greater Parliamentary scrutiny.

  To protect the commercial confidentiality of proposed licence applications, a Parliamentary committee could meet in closed session. The information on weapons types and numbers to be exported and the prospective end-use or end-user could be disclosed without revealing individual company details. We propose that the committee would not have the power to veto sales, but could recommend whether the sale should proceed or not.

  To ensure that both the committee and the DTI had manageable tasks, we would suggest that the Government would not have to submit every proposed export licence to it. Instead, it could consider deals worth over £5 million and those involving more than 50 specified items. This latter requirement would ensure that relatively low value items such as small arms and ammunition, which are often the tools of violence, would be scrutinised. It would also be possible, either as an additional or alternative criterion, to submit to the committee proposed sales to a list of sensitive destinations. Though the Government is opposed to total bans on sales to any country which is not under an embargo, such a list of sensitive destinations for this specific purpose would not conflict with this policy.

2.2  The Purpose of Export Controls

  The legislation flowing from the White Paper should take account of the EU Code of Conduct agreed by the General Affairs Council on 8 June—no doubt after most of the White Paper was drafted. Where the Government has already committed itself, in the Code, to more detailed criteria than those included in the White Paper, these should be used in the legislation, in order to maintain the Government's consistency.

  (This is not to say that Oxfam concurs with every aspect of the Code which we believe should be strengthened, but we do believe that it is a step in the right direction which should be consistently applied. For a more detailed analysis of proposals to strengthen the EU Code of Conduct, please refer to the paper submitted by the UK Arms Working Group of which Oxfam is a member.)

2.3  Arms Brokering and Trafficking

  The White Paper's proposal to curb the activites of arms brokers is particularly welcome. Over recent years, we have witnessed the horrific consequences of the inadequate regulation of this section of the arms market, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, where arms brokers continue to operate with impunity. We agree with the Government that it is wrong in principle for UK brokers to undermine embargoes enacted in legislation. The question not answered by the White Paper is how best to prevent this.

  In the legislation flowing from the White Paper, the Government should make it a criminal offence to broker weapons to any embargoed destination. The current practice of using Orders in Council to enact each individual embargo on a case by case basis has been seen to fail to prevent brokering both in this year's scandal around arms to Sierra Leone and in the 1994 brokering of arms by MilTec to the genocidal regime of the former government of Rwanda. No prosecutions took place in either case. Clear legislation that all brokering to embargoed destinations is a criminal offence would demonstrate that the Government has learned the lessons of the past.

  All brokering should be brought within the scope of strategic export controls, as currently happens in Germany. There are many countries, which are not subject to an arms embargo to which it is still essential to judge whether or not brokered weapons to these destinations could be used to violate human rights, fuel external aggression or divert resources from development. It is therefore illogical to permit unregulated brokering. The Government should consider requiring arms brokers to register their activites as currently happens in the US, and to require brokering deals to be licenced with criminal penalties for failure to do so.

2.4  End-Use Controls and monitoring

  The legislation stemming from the White Paper will provide an opportunity to ensure that effective end-use controls are implemented in the UK. All end-use and/or end-user information should be clearly specified in the license application. Export licences should only be granted if the end-user agrees to the UK Government having the right to conduct follow up monitoring. It is of course impractical for UK diplomatic missions to monitor every strategic export. Nevertheless, a level of checks on random exports, or those to sensitive destinations, should be instituted to rebuild confidence that UK end-user certificates are reliable safeguards agains abuse. End-use certicates should become legally binding agreements which become void if another use or user is proved.

  Moreover, legislation should specify that copies of end-user certificates must accompany airway bills, cargo manifests or any other shipping information relevant to the transfer of arms and strategic goods. It should also be an offence in law for shipping and handling agents to proceed with transhipment without ensuring the necessary documentation is correct and that it has been approved by appropriate authorities. To better regulate the activities of arms brokers, it is hoped that this legislation can be applied extra-territorially to include all UK nationals and UK based or registered companies.

  At the same time, the Government should, as the White Paper says, seek to establish a common international system of end-use regulation in appropriate international fora with the utmost urgency.


  In order to help reduce the human suffering associated with unregulated or poorly regulated exports of arms, Oxfam recommends that legislation stemming from the White Paper should include the following points:

    1.  A statutory requirement to produce detailed annual reports on types, numbers and end-use of all arms exports;

    2.  the pre-notification of sensitive exports to a parliamentary committee;

    3.  the purpose of export controls to include the EU Code of Conduct;

    4.  it should be declared a crime in law to broker arms to any embargoed destination;

    5.  all other arms brokering deals to be subject to UK export controls, including their compulsory registration;

    6.  end-use certificates and the right to conduct follow up monitoring to be a legally binding agreement;

    7.  handling and shipping agents to be required to ensure that end-use documentation is verified by appropriate authorities at all stages of transhipment.

September 1998

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Prepared 10 December 1998