Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


Existing international export control regimes

164. A number of informal arrangements exist for the international co-ordination of export controls. They all involve the exchange of information and they prepare agreed lists of controlled equipment and technology. They all operate by informal consensus. The regimes are as follows:

—  Australia Group: chemical and biological weapons

—  Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): missiles with a range of at least 300km

—  Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Zangger Committee: nuclear and nuclear-related goods and technology

—  Wassenaar Arrangement: conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technology

165. Membership of the groups is by no means worldwide. Longstanding EU member states, the USA and like-minded countries belong to all of the groups. The Russian Federation and Ukraine belong to all but the Australia Group. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia belong only to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. China, Israel, India and Pakistan—major arms producers and exporters—belong to none of the groups.[190]

166. The existing multilateral export control groups—from the Australia Group to the Wassenaar Arrangement—are not legally binding, and they have no enforcement mechanisms. Their membership is also limited. We asked the Foreign Secretary what such multilateral arrangements can achieve, given that they are neither binding, nor truly international. He did not seek to defend the arrangements, and suggested that they could usefully be rationalised and that they did not receive the same level of attention from other Governments as was paid to them by the United Kingdom.[191]

167. The Government is to be congratulated for its instrumental role in securing consensus within the Wassenaar Agreement on specific information exchange on transfers of small arms and light weapons. The British Government has also proposed the introduction of a system of denial notifications and bilateral undercut consultations within the Wassenaar Arrangement, based on the arrangements within the EU. This, if implemented, would be a significant advance in the exchange of information between countries as diverse as Argentina and Ukraine. Agreement on the proposal has not yet been reached, however.[192] We recommend that the Government should continue to press for the introduction of a denial notification system within the Wassenaar Arrangement.

168. It is likely that many of the advantages of the regimes are contained less in their formal proceedings, than in the opportunities they provide to foster dialogue. The arrangements are genuinely valuable in that they encourage the exchange of information and best practice, and that they identify goods and technology that need to be controlled. Although we appreciate the difficulties that exist in achieving international co-operation in an area as sensitive as export controls, we are unconvinced, however, that the regimes are as effective as they might be.

169. Membership of the arrangements is too large for an effective consensus to be easily achieved, and progress depends on the national implementation of agreed measures: a slow and cumbersome process which is unlikely to keep pace with global trade patterns and emerging technologies. But looked at from another angle, membership is too small: it is questionable what an international consensus on responsible behaviour in the control of dual-use equipment, for example, can hope to achieve if China, India and Israel are not engaged in this process.

170. We conclude that international arrangements on export control need to be made to work as channels through which major arms exporters can share information effectively on proliferation concerns. We further conclude that if this cannot be achieved, it may be necessary to rethink the current arrangements. Failure in this area would bode ill for an effective and truly international approach to counter-proliferation through export controls.

Proposal for an Arms Trade Treaty

171. One proposal to strengthen the current arrangements on conventional weapons is the campaign for an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This was launched by Amnesty International and Oxfam in October 2003, partly as a response to the weakness of current international controls. The NGOs propose to submit the draft ATT at the next UN meeting on small arms proliferation in 2006. The proliferation of conventional weapons, small arms in particular, is a real and serious threat to human security that needs to be addressed internationally. As the NGOs make clear in their campaign, "the uncontrolled proliferation and misuse of arms by government forces and armed groups takes a massive human toll in lost lives, lost livelihoods, and lost opportunities to escape poverty".[193]

172. The question is not whether this is a problem which needs addressing: clearly it does. The question is rather how to address it. It is not obvious that current mechanisms are sufficiently effective in reducing this proliferation.

173. The NGOs claim that the proposed treaty is based upon "existing responsibilities", and that it pulls together international agreements, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Ottawa Convention.[194] But it also goes rather further. For example, it would require states to incorporate into national law criteria against which any proposed transfer of arms should be permitted and it would require states to monitor closely what happens to arms once they have left national borders.[195]

174. The NGOs suggest that "even though some countries are opposed to an ATT, this should not prevent other states from forging ahead". They cite the example of the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines, which, although it has not been signed by every country in the world, has created "a new international norm" as a result of which "not a single country has openly traded anti-personnel landmines, far fewer governments are using anti-personnel landmines, and even some nonsignatories are broadly abiding by its principles".[196] Oxfam has underlined the "clear weakness in agreements that are only politically-binding" and the "risk that pushing for consensus will only bring a lowest common denominator result", and has urged the Government "to be more vocal in its support for a legally binding international Arms Trade Treaty, based on existing principles of international humanitarian law".[197]

175. The campaign has drawn widescale support in the humanitarian sector. However, support from states has been less forthcoming. As of February 2004, Brazil, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Finland, Macedonia, Mali and the Netherlands had expressed support for the Treaty, in principle at least.[198] The British Government has also made encouraging noises, and has stated that it "supports the goal of an international instrument on arms transfers" but argues that for it to be effective such a treaty "would have to enjoy the support of all major arms exporting countries".[199]

176. Our NGO witnesses told us that they were not "naïve enough" to think that international agreement on a treaty would "happen overnight", and were well aware that it would take "a huge effort to engage states like the United States, Russia and China".[200] But even taking a pragmatic view, this proposed treaty seems to have attracted the support of a very small minority of states, none of which are major arms exporters (apart, perhaps, from Brazil). Even if the text and precise content of such a document is always likely to be subject to negotiation, we are surprised that the idea of a proposed treaty has attracted so little support, even from those countries where small arms proliferation is a major problem. We conclude that the proposed International Arms Trade Treaty has received disappointingly little international support.

177. In his evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the proposal for a treaty but expressed possible concern about how effective such a measure would be and what support it would attract on the international stage:

    It goes without saying that if I felt an arms control treaty would deal with many of the problems which you have raised and we could get it through, I would be in favour of it. After all, we have signed up to all sorts of instruments in terms of arms control and there is no argument there, in principle, between us, it is just whether this is going to work.[201]

178. The Foreign Secretary has told us that small arms are at the root of the problems that the NGOs wish to address and that while the United Kingdom has "a large defence industry", "small arms plays a tiny part in that". He also claimed that the United Kingdom is "well ahead of the proposals for the arms trade treaty". Mr Edward Oakden, Director of International Security in the FCO, took this argument further, stating that there was "a general agreement that the real countries that we need to be getting at are not the other countries of the European Union, they are not a problem, it is the countries which are the major exporters of small arms".[202]

179. This is a slightly tendentious argument. Even if it is true that many small arms in the developing world are domestically manufactured or sourced from countries with weaker controls, Western countries remain among the world's most important producers of small arms, and weapons produced in these countries do end up in the hands of undesirable end users, both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

180. Mr Oakden has also argued that countries such as the United Kingdom need to be cautious about moving too far ahead of the rest of the world, on the basis that "that actually makes it harder, very often, to bring either some of the developing countries on board because they feel that they are being made to sign up to somebody else's agenda, or, indeed, some of the big exporters of small arms". He told us that the Government was therefore trying "to create a movement from this that goes wider than the western consensus".[203]

181. We are particularly unimpressed by this argument, which seems to us to be a poor excuse for excessive caution. The United Kingdom would not have helped to achieve international agreement against the use of anti-personnel landmines by waiting for world opinion. We are simply not convinced that by showing more active support for such a treaty, western countries—especially those with an important defence industry, such as the United Kingdom—would be discouraging others from taking part.

182. We agree with our witness from Amnesty International that the United Kingdom "has a duty to show robust international leadership" in this area, as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and a major exporter of military equipment.[204] In 2005, the United Kingdom will take up the chairmanship of the G8, and, in the second half of the year, the rotating presidency of the EU. These will be opportunities for the Government to show this leadership.

183. Small arms proliferation is a major and increasing threat to human security in many parts of the world. Given the limited progress that the proposal for an arms trade treaty has made, and the clear need for an international solution to this problem, we conclude that the Government must do everything it can to promote workable and effective measures to prevent further proliferation of small arms, including those exported from western countries. We recommend that the Government should use its position as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, its forthcoming chairmanship of the G8 and presidency of the European Union to further international consensus in this area. If the proposed treaty is not the right solution, another one needs to be found, and found urgently.

Export control issues in other international organisations

184. Other fora with wider agendas are also relevant to export controls, in particular: the United Nations (small arms and light weapons) and the G8 (weapons of mass destruction and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS)).

185. On 28 April 2004 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 relating to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This Resolution includes for the first time an obligation on states to "take and enforce effective measures to establish domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery, including by establishing appropriate controls over related materials". States are asked to present a report within six months on steps that they have taken or intend to take to implement the resolution.

186. This is the first time that a UN Security Council Resolution has imposed on states an obligation to operate "effective national export and trans-shipment controls" of any sort. We conclude that UN Security Council Resolution 1540 is a welcome first step towards truly international coordination of export controls on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of their delivery. We recommend that the Government should seek to encourage implementation of the Resolution in states where such controls are weak, and that the Government should explain in its response to this Report what assistance it is prepared to offer to states lacking the legal and regulatory infrastructure, implementation experience and/or resources to enable them to fulfil the provisions of the Resolution.

187. The British Government has played a leading role in seeking stronger international controls on small arms transfers through the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA). We are pleased that the Government is optimistic about the success of this initiative, and hope that differences of opinion between states can be successfully resolved.

188. The G8 agreed at Evian in June 2003 to an Action Plan to enhance transport security and control of MANPADS.[205] In December 2003, the Wassenaar Arrangement agreed to Elements for Export Controls of MANPADS.[206] The essential impact of these documents on export controls is that MANPADS will be permitted for export only to foreign governments or their agents.

189. MANPADS are a dangerous weapon in the hands of terrorists, and controlling their export is vitally important. The wide availability of MANPADS is one of the factors currently putting our Armed Forces at risk in Iraq. We conclude that international agreement to control man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) is an important step in limiting the prospects of their use by terrorists and insurgents. We comment further below on the Government's position on controlling trade in MANPADS conducted from outside the United Kingdom.[207]

New arrangements

190. Given the weakness of existing international export control arrangements, it is perhaps unsurprising that the US Government has seen the need to institute the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), in an effort to limit proliferation and to provide a military counterpoint to existing strategic export controls. The aim of PSI is to interdict traffic in weapons of mass destruction. The initiative emerged in December 2002 after Spain and the United States found themselves unable to detain a ship bearing Scud missiles in the Arabian Sea, when Yemen declared that the missiles had been legally purchased from North Korea. The US and ten other states, including the United Kingdom, have agreed to share information on proliferation activities and to carry out military interdiction exercises.

191. According to the Foreign Secretary, "we need the Proliferation Security Initiative because although there are many countries which observe the high standards to which every other country in the world, bar a tiny handful, are committed, there are other countries which sign up to international instruments but do not enforce or, even if they wish to enforce, lack the capacity to do so". Countries subscribing to the initiative "seek to take action to enforce rules which the originating countries should have enforced themselves", particularly in respect of the transport of WMD.[208]

192. Nuclear weapon related material was intercepted under the PSI on its way to Libya in September 2003, and this may have contributed to that state's willingness to renounce its weapons programmes. However, such initiatives need to be treated with care: the legality of interdiction on the high seas is doubtful; and if interceptions appear to be unilateral and political, rather than meeting the needs of international security, this may undermine, rather than support, multilateral efforts to counter proliferation.

193. We conclude that the Proliferation Security Initiative is an essential tool, but that its use should be limited to extreme and urgent circumstances. We recommend that care should be taken that its use does not undermine efforts to promote an effective multilateral approach to export controls. While it is true that current international agreements in this area are inadequate, we conclude that it is unlikely that a unilateral attempt to control other countries' exports for them by force would be successful in the long term in preserving international stability and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

190   China has applied for membership of the NSG, and has given positive indications about possible membership of the MTCR. Back

191   Q 54 Back

192   Appendix 13, q 12 Back

193   Amnesty International and Oxfam International, Shattered Lives: The case for tough international arms control, p 4 (henceforth 'Shattered Lives') Back

194   Shattered Lives, p 75 Back

195   Shattered Lives, p 75 Back

196   Shattered Lives, p 76 Back

197   Appendix 5, para 1 Back

198   Oxfam policy update, February 2004; Q 46; Q 79 Back

199   HC Deb 29 January 2004, c 513W Back

200   Q 79 (Mr Parker) Back

201   Q 46 Back

202   Q 46 Back

203   Q 46 Back

204   Q 79 (Mr Parker) Back

205   Enhance Transport Security and Control of Man-portable Air Defence Systems- MANPADS - A G8 Action Plan. Available from the official web site of the Evian Summit 2003, Back

206   Elements for Export Controls of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). Available from the Wassenaar Arrangement web site, Back

207   See paras 223-224. Back

208   Q 56 Back

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