Quadripartite Select Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


25 APRIL 2006

  Q280  Richard Burden: Is British equipment being used on that?

  Dr Howells: I am sure there is British equipment and we would look very, very carefully at such equipment applications and we do look very carefully.

  Chairman: We had better move on. Quentin.

  Q281  Mr Davies: Dr Howells, can I just express the view that, of course, where conditions have been imposed for an export licence or assurances given, they must be enforced, in this case the condition that we did impose or the assurance that we did seek, that the APCs would not be deployed in several Occupied Territories, was misconceived because one can seriously imagine a situation in which a terrorist incident occurs in the territories, or indeed an attack on Israel through artillery or other means made from the territories, and the Israeli defence forces have to respond defensively not offensively. If their nearest troops are deployed in British-made APCs it would be absurd if they could not use them for that purpose, to respond to that incident defensively, to save the lives of people, Palestinians or Israelis. I just want to put that thought to you.

  Dr Howells: Yes, indeed, I accept it and Mr Burden alluded to it when he put his question forward, which was how on earth do we differentiate between an aggressive use of a piece of machinery, a vehicle, or whatever, and a perfectly understandable, defensive response. It is not easy, it is probably the most difficult part of the world in which to make those decisions.

  Q282  Mr Keetch: Can I move to something, Minister, that is not a Land Rover or a piece of equipment for building a wall, but is in fact a Beretta 92S semi-automatic pistol, which probably only has one use. Are you aware of the report in The Observer of 19 March 2005 that said that 20,318 of these weapons—which, if I remember my Ian Fleming correctly, was actually James Bond's original choice of weapon—were flown via Stansted with a DTI licence to the Coalition Provisional Authority and then were distributed to the Iraqi police. Iraqi officers have subsequently said that these have been "passed on to the friends of al-Zarqawi" insurgency organisation, and both the British arms companies involved in this sale admit that some of the weapons, possibly thousands of these weapons, found their way into the hands of insurgents. Are these reports correct? If so, what are we doing to ensure that the end use of semi-automatic pistols exported by British companies into Iraq, where there is a situation of, I am sure we would all agree, unfortunate uncertainty, is correctly applied?

  Dr Howells: We look very carefully at anything that is exported to Iraq, as you might imagine, and certainly we made a decision that the Iraqi police face very, very difficult circumstances. I am old enough to remember, Mr Keetch, the way in which the IRA got a lot of its arms in Northern Ireland; they sometimes took them from our dead soldiers and policemen, and that happens in difficult situations like this one. Yes, the guns were certainly bought from the Italians, as far as I know—we are looking at this one very carefully—they were exported to Iraq for distribution to the police forces. The most difficult problem would be if there are sectarian groups within that police force that have got very direct and worrying links to insurgent militias or to other people who basically are trying to kill our troops, our development workers and other people out there, and that is something we have to be extremely sensitive about, and I believe that we were. I have no doubt that in some of the attacks on police stations, some of the murders of policemen out there, some of these weapons probably did get into the hands of enemies of the Iraqi Government and enemies of ours.

  Q283  Mr Keetch: It is a terrible question to ask, Minister, but is there any evidence that any of these weapons or other weapons supplied from Britain have actually been used in attacks against British troops or British forces?

  Dr Howells: We are certainly not aware of that and we have looked very carefully at that.

  Q284  Richard Younger-Ross: Dr Howells, it is fairly well-known that not all the police are loyal to the new government. We had an incident not that long ago where the police handed over British soldiers to insurgents and had to be rescued, we have statements from the chief of police in Basra that he can still only rely on about half of his forces. Do you not think that there is a duty to ensure that the end-use and the final destination of these weapons is checked on a regular basis, and that maybe your comment about extracting weapons from dead bodies is slightly misleading when the most likely source for supplying these weapons is actually via the soldiers within the Iraqi police force?

  Dr Howells: I was in Basra a few weeks ago myself and I spoke to the commander of police there, who is a very honourable man and is burdened with a great many difficulties, not the least of which is that he does not believe that he needs half the policemen that he has got. He has got them there, they have been appointed as part of a job creation scheme, and he is very worried that there are corrupt policemen and there are certainly people I met down there who are convinced that the greatest problem in that area is of criminality. There are gangs, death squads, there is a lot of smuggling going on and at one point he told me that 25% of murders in the area are probably committed by men wearing police uniforms. We are not sure if they are policemen or whatever, but we look very carefully at this and we try to assess the impact of any licensed distribution of weapons like this one and we try to learn from it. I would have to turn the question around and say do we arm some policemen and not other policemen, how do we tell? As we try to build capacity, try to build a good police force, help build a good force with others working in that area we have to make a judgment on who should be armed and who should not be armed, we try to do that and we have tried to do it in this instance.

  Q285  Mr Keetch: On a slightly different but associated subject, Dr Howells, you said that you were in Basra, and members of this Committee have been there also recently. You would have been protected, as we were, not by British troops but by members of private security companies.

  Dr Howells: No, I was protected by British troops.

  Q286  Mr Keetch: As a Minister of the Crown I am very glad you were.

  Dr Howells: I was very glad too, I might say.

  Q287  Mr Keetch: Some of us were protected by private security companies; are they allowed to take any weapon they choose into Iraq and what controls are given on them for the use and control of their weapons when they go into Iraq?

  Dr Howells: We receive all applications from private security companies and any other agencies operating there, and anything that comes to this Government, to DTI in the first instance, for an application for a licence to export any weapon has to be assessed on the same basis as any other export that is going to Iraq. We are very, very careful.

  Q288  Richard Younger-Ross: What controls are put on fairly common building materials like laser lights used to open and close lift doors, but which can also be used to trigger roadside bombs?

  Dr Howells: We are very much aware of Hezbollah bomb technology which has got down there—we are not sure how it has got down there, but I am sure you have got views on this and I have got views on it. We understand very well the potency of infrared, remote detonation devices that have killed some of our troops down there and we are very, very careful about the way in which any technology like that is sold and distributed in the southern Iraq area or anywhere else in Iraq.

  Q289  Mike Gapes: Can I take you a little bit further south to Saudi Arabia? In an earlier answer that you gave to Lindsay Hoyle you said that the Government fully subscribed to criterion 2 in the EU code on arms exports which requires respect for human rights in the country of foreign destination. As you are aware, as a Foreign Office minister, the annual human rights report of your own department is rather critical of human rights in Saudi Arabia, to put it mildly, and it talks about continued violations of human rights in a number of states. How therefore can you justify arms exports to Saudi Arabia?

  Dr Howells: Every export licence application is certainly considered against criterion 2 on a case by case basis, we pay particularly close attention to criterion 2 for Saudi Arabia, and we would certainly recommend refusal if there was concern or a clear risk that the equipment might be used contrary to the conditions of criterion 2. There have been small but we think very significant improvements in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, and decisions on export licences are certainly always made on a case by case basis in the light of an up to date assessment of the way in which the specific equipment would be used by the specific end user.

  Q290  Mike Gapes: You refer to "small improvements"; would it be accurate to say that our Government is prepared to ease the application of criterion 2 where there are small improvements, even though there are still abuses of human rights?

  Dr Howells: It would be strictly on a case by case basis, we would have to look at it very specifically. There is no general rule of thumb or anything of that sort.

  Q291  Mike Gapes: Would that be because you want to take account of our strategic interests?

  Dr Howells: Certainly we sell a lot of equipment to the Saudis, but that would not nudge aside our prime consideration which is criterion 2.

  Mr Moore: You will be aware, I am sure, that we have the criteria and then we have the other factors which are in the list and appear after the criteria. The criteria come first and then we look at the other factors.

  Q292  Mike Gapes: Can I just be specific then? The annual human rights report refers to violations including "restricting freedoms of expression and press, assembly, association, religion and movement". The Quarterly Report April to June 2005 lists the following as being exported to Saudi Arabia: armoured all wheel drive vehicles, assault rifles, components for assault rifles, components for body armour, components for general purpose machine guns, general purpose machine guns, general purpose machine guns maintenance equipment, gun silencers, smoke hand grenades, and the July to September Report 2005 talks about tear gas and riot control agents. Would you agree that all of those could be used, either directly or indirectly, to perpetrate human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia?

  Dr Howells: Yes, of course they could all be used, but we have to make a judgment on whether they will be used. I can also say to you, Mr Gapes, that Saudi Arabia has been very concerned since the invasion of its neighbour, Kuwait, by Iraq and they sought to improve the capability and capacity of their own armed forces and they have a perfect right to do that. We would judge each of these export licences on a case by case basis.

  Q293  Mike Gapes: How many export licences have you refused to Saudi Arabia recently?

  Dr Howells: I do not know. We will find those figures for you.

  Q294  Mike Gapes: Will you let us have them in writing?

  Dr Howells: Yes.

  Q295  Chairman: Is it not right, regarding Mr Moore's comment that of course the Government looks not only at criterion 2 but at the other criteria, the Government's critics would simply say we all know perfectly well why Saudi Arabia is a major recipient of UK arms exports, despite the human rights record, and it is that there are massive business opportunities there for UK defence manufacturers and that strategically Saudi is seen to be "on our side". Is not the nub of the matter that the human rights aspects can be quietly ignored in those circumstances?

  Dr Howells: No, we certainly do not ignore human rights aspects and we press the Saudis as we press anybody else to try to advance human rights in that country, and we will continue to do so.

  Q296  Robert Key: Minister, sadly I was not able to make it to Geneva on 23 March of this year to listen to your speech, but it was a very good speech, if I may say so. You said in the course of that speech that an arms trade treaty should cover all conventional arms, not just small arms, and you said it could be based on a listing system; this might be a completely new piece of work or it might be based on something that has already happened. Could you just flesh out a little what you envisage the process being now that you have signed up to this?

  Dr Howells: In a sense it comes back to Sir John Stanley's first question about what kinds of weapons are the ones causing the most harm, for example, at any time, and I have been a little worried and I know the Secretary of State has, that in the SALW[1] negotiations there has been a limit, if you like, on the size of arms and the kinds of arms which really should not be there. We have to look right across the whole portfolio of arms that are used because there are some pieces of equipment that seem to be outside of that study at the moment and we think they ought to be in there, so we are very much in favour of a much more general approach to this.

  Q297 Robert Key: This is really because the arms trade treaty is not about ending the arms trade, it is about responsible use of the trade in arms.

  Dr Howells: Precisely, and we are also committed, of course, to securing a UN-based process on that. We think that that approach offers more chance of success than previous approaches because it is not telling countries that they cannot buy arms and it is not telling countries that they cannot sell arms, it is looking for a much more responsible use of those and an assessment of the ways in which they are likely to be used.

  Q298  Robert Key: What is the attitude of the United States to this?

  Dr Howells: The United States, to be very candid, are very worried that we will not get very far with this. In a sense it is a kind of council of despair; if we do not try we do not know and in my discussions with the Americans they are very keen that there ought to be an arms trade treaty which can bite, which can begin to modify this situation, but we have to convince them that they ought to be spending time, effort and energy on this programme.

  Q299  Robert Key: On 6 May the campaign for an arms trade treaty of course is having a high street nationwide day of action. A lot of people will be surprised that somebody like me will be supporting that, on the basis, as you point out, of responsible arms trade. Is it in your experience true that a responsible arms trade is actually beneficial for the peacekeeping operations, for example, of the British? The British are up against a lot of small arms or, for that matter, weapons that have been supplied irresponsibly and that is dangerous for our forces.

  Dr Howells: I could not agree with you more that the more legitimate we can make that trade and recognise and regulate it, the more the UN realises that it can do something about this, then the more it will be to the benefit of everyone. By the way, Mr Key, it was ironic really that on the day that I delivered this speech in Geneva the NGOs active in and around Pontypridd were condemning me for not being with them in their protest on that day—somebody had not checked.

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