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27 Mar 2008 : Column 151WH—continued

3.28 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I want first to express my pleasure at the Government’s strategic export control system and the work done by the Committees on strategic export controls chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). The system that has been instituted for strategic export controls is one of which the Government and the country can be proud, and although further improvements may still be required, it is important to make the point that the system, and parliamentary scrutiny of it, have provided all hon. Members with far greater means than they had previously of getting a handle, if I may put it that way, on arms exports from this country, and of raising issues of concern. I do not want that point to be lost in what I shall say subsequently, which will focus more on criticism.

I want to use the opportunity of the debate to focus on arms exports to two countries—Israel and Sri Lanka. Although they are very different countries, they raise similar issues. Both their Governments use arms disproportionately and without taking sufficient care or account of the need, under international law, to avoid collateral damage and harm to civilians where there is armed conflict.

Members might know that I raised the issue of arms to Israel long ago when I was a member of the former Quadripartite Committee, so I am pleased that, according to the tables on pages 133 and 134 of the Committees’ report, it appears that the Government’s more stringent policy in assessing arms export applications to Israel has been put into effect and has resulted in a significantly higher level of licence application refusals. I remind Members of the background to the Government’s policy change, which was instituted thanks to the vigilance of our embassy employees based in Tel Aviv—I think—to whom it became obvious that the Israeli authorities had
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given wholly false assurances to the British Government over previous arms sales: they assured the Government that the equipment would not be used in the occupied territories. Thanks to the vigilance of our embassy employees, it was found that vehicles had been modified and used in the occupied territories, thus demonstrating that any future assurances given by the Israeli authorities were not trustworthy and could not be relied upon. I am pleased, therefore, about the evidence that the British Government are looking carefully at applications for arms exports to Israel.

Having said that, I was slightly disturbed by a quote from the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), in which she pointed out that only 0.1 per cent. of Israel’s total arms exports comes from the United Kingdom. She appeared to be saying, therefore, not that what we do does not matter, but that it is not that important. However, I think that it is very important not simply because the UK Government should not be complicit in arms being used in a way contrary to international law, but because by exercising such controls we send a clear message to foreign Governments about the standards that the Government believe should be upheld. Israel has a strong arms industry of its own, which means that it can plug any gaps, but the fact that the level of our arms sales to Israel is so low sets an example and sends a strong message that we believe that international law should be adhered to in all circumstances and that we exercise such controls because we do not believe that the Israeli Government adhere to international law in all circumstances. It is right to send that strong and powerful message to the Israeli Government and public.

I shall make a slight digression. I have raised before the technical issue about which of our arms export criteria apply to the occupied territories. Clearly, there is no internal oppression by the Israeli Government, because it is clear under international law that the occupied territories are just that—occupied—and not part of Israel. Neither is Israel acting aggressively against another country, because there is not yet a recognised Palestinian state. I suppose that they could fall under the middle criteria about not provoking or prolonging armed conflict, or aggravating existing tensions or conflicts, in the country of final destination, but again the occupied territories are not a recognised country. I am not saying, “Well, therefore, it does not matter and we can export any old arms to Israel for use in the occupied territories, because they are not covered by the criteria”. I simply point out that the criteria appear to leave a slight gap when one country using arms is occupying another territory that does not have statehood.

I want to reiterate the point that the Israeli Government have form in using high and low-tech weapons carelessly and without sufficient concern in areas where civilians will obviously be hit—I am not saying that they deliberately target civilians. I have seen the effect of those policies in Gaza, and particularly in southern Lebanon, which I visited immediately after the war. The consequences in southern Lebanon, and parts of Beirut, of the Israeli bombardment were appalling. The bombardment was clearly wholly disproportionate and demonstrated complete disregard for civilian casualties.

Commonly, the Israeli Government use the excuse that their opponents—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, and others, in Gaza—are responsible for civilian damage,
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because they release rockets against Israeli territory from areas where civilians live. I make no justification for the behaviour of Hezbollah or Hamas, but I strenuously reject the notion that because rockets are fired from civilian areas the Israeli Government are absolved of their responsibility to act within international law in all circumstances.

During military action in Iraq, the British Government took care to have lawyers present at every military action advising on whether it was legal and took sufficient account under international law of the need to avoid damage to civilians. Our Government know that it is the responsibility of the Government using weapons to assure themselves that the probability of civilian damage is extremely low and that they are taking all possible care to avoid civilian casualties. On the other hand, the Israelis have used bunker-buster bombs in southern Lebanon and other high-tech weapons in Gaza, supposedly to assassinate “targets”—known militants. They are aware of the level of tolerance in the accuracy of their weapons and they know that they are using them in densely populated areas so they cannot possibly be reasonably assured that they do not present a huge risk of innocent civilian deaths. Figures from Gaza clearly demonstrate a very high number of innocent civilians being killed using those methods.

I urge the British Government, therefore, to be extremely vigilant in scrutinising future export licence applications relating to Israel, and to bear in mind the Israeli Government’s record and their apparent complete disregard for international law.

The second country that I am concerned about is Sri Lanka. My interest in the matter arises from the fact that a number of my constituents are of Sri Lankan-Tamil origin. Several of them have been active for a great many years in a charity that supports orphans and schools in Sri Lanka—mainly, but not exclusively, in the Tamil areas. One of those constituents has only just returned from a visit to Sri Lanka.

There is no absolutely no dispute about sovereignty in Sri Lanka, because the Sri Lankan Government have sovereignty over the whole island, but there has been long-running insurrection in the Tamil areas. I do not seek in the slightest to justify the violent actions of the Tamil Tigers, including their pioneering of the use of suicide bombing, but as well as the violent action, there is in the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka perfectly legitimate non-violent and political agitation to gain autonomy and respect for their community rights.

Although the previous Sri Lankan Government, with a great deal of international help and support, seemed to be moving towards a negotiated settlement with the Tamil Tigers and other groups in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, I am deeply concerned that the current Sri Lankan Government appear to have instituted a sharp change in policy. They now eschew negotiation and seem to believe that they can achieve a military solution. Not only do they use military action against the armed groups in a way that shows blatant disregard for collateral civilian damage, but they involve themselves—either directly or by turning a blind eye to what other groups do—in the wholesale repression of, and discrimination against, the Tamil population at large. Some of the more egregious examples of that were several assassinations,
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including those of two Tamil-elected Members of the Sri Lankan Parliament in extremely suspicious circumstances, which suggests at the very least that the Sri Lankan Government turned a blind eye to what was going on—and perhaps something worse.

In those circumstances, it is important that the British Government and the European Union examine carefully any arms sales to Sri Lanka. The country faces relatively few external threats, but for a country of its nature, its spending on defence is large and growing. As I mentioned, it has also used high-tech weapons—fighter jets in particular—disproportionately and caused a significant number of civilian deaths and injuries. One of my constituents drew my attention in particular to one of their schools where the fighter jets were used, presumably against an armed group, but hit and damaged the school and injured a number of children.

I ask the Government to look urgently at any arms sales being proposed to Sri Lanka, to talk with their European Union allies to ensure that they, too, are aware of the situation, and to ensure that there are up-to-date briefings from Sri Lanka about the way in which the current Sri Lankan Government seem to be using weapons against their own population—whether armed or not—in a systematic attempt to expunge not only separatist claims by Tamil Sri Lankans, but even perfectly reasonably and legitimate claims for autonomy and the recognition of their minority rights.

3.44 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree very much with the tributes paid to the Chairman of the Committees on strategic export controls, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), for the report that he has played a major role in producing. I also agree with the tributes paid to the staff of the Committees on strategic export controls—I still use the term the Quadripartite Committee; after years of speaking about something in one way, it is hard to change to a new form of language, but I shall try.

We are a strange committee because of our structures and the way in which we have to make decisions, but if the Chairman is not aware yet, I am pleased to be able to tell him that the Liaison Committee this morning agreed to support the proposals to change our procedure and to make it easier for our committee to work. We have to produce our reports unanimously, and with four component parts, it is not always easy. However, it is relatively easy because of the good will shown by all members of the committee, which means that when we produce reports and recommendations, they are far more effective. I am pleased to say that in general, the Government have moved towards some of the recommendations from our reports over the years, but not sufficiently—before the Minister and his officials become too relaxed.

In that context, I shall refer to another Government report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights annual report 2007, which was published on Tuesday. One of the interesting features of that report is page 5, where it lists major countries of concern on human rights. Some, such as Burma and China, have already been mentioned in the debate, but Sri Lanka is not on the list, which is an interesting omission. Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are also on the list.

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The full list includes a number of countries where the Government do not and have not sold arms at all, but it also includes a number of countries where we do. For the record, the full list is Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, the People’s Republic of China, Colombia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

The report says, however, that that is only a selection, and there are other countries—they are mentioned in the report—where there are human rights concerns. I am lobbied regularly about the situation in Colombia, and the human rights annual report specifically says:

It also says that it is a country where many human rights issues need to be addressed, although it claims that the situation is improving. I should be grateful if the Minister in his reply at least clarified why there is still some level of arms exports, and military co-operation and co-operation with the authorities in Colombia. The Minister for the Middle East recently visited Colombia and was photographed with leading military figures in the country, so I should be grateful for clarification of the position of Her Majesty’s Government on Colombia and the human rights issues there.

Reference has already been made to China and I do not want to repeat what the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has said. It was mentioned in an intervention earlier that Chinese arms exports to Sudan are a matter of some concern, as are its arms exports to Zimbabwe. Given that both Sudan and Zimbabwe are on the list of major countries of concern on human rights, there is an indirect consequence. Therefore, the human rights dialogue that Britain and the European Union have with the Chinese should also focus on China’s arms exports policy, as well as the wider issues of concern.

I do not wish to make a long contribution today, although I am conscious that there are many points that we could address. The final country that I would like to flag up is one that the committee this year did not make any specific recommendations about. Nevertheless, it is on the list of countries of human rights concern. That country is Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, there are certain issues that are currently highly topical relating to arms sales to Saudi Arabia 15 or 20 years ago; perhaps the chickens are coming home to roost. However, I want to focus on the present situation and ask for clarification from the Minister when he replies about the Government’s attitude both to current arms sales policy regarding Saudi Arabia and to the human rights situation in that country, including how we see that situation developing in the future.

This report and the Government response are very valuable. I must say, from discussions that I have had with parliamentarians in many other countries in the European Union and more widely, that there is a great deal of interest in the work that we have done in bringing about greater transparency and accountability in these areas. Indeed, some countries—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood knows this very well because he is involved in the discussions about it—are so impressed that they want members of our committee to visit them
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and give advice. I hope that we will be able to build on the work that we have done in recent years and consolidate it, so that we can become even more effective.

I believe that the way in which the committee has worked is a model, not only in terms of our cross-party and cross-Committee contributions and joint working but in terms of reconciling the different interests that exist. Clearly, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee—that is another new name—and the International Development Committee might have members with slightly different interests with regard to issues relating to arms exports. Similarly, the Defence Committee might have a slightly different approach and perspective from those of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Nevertheless, we are able to unite to produce these reports and that is a great tribute to the members of the committee and to all those others who have made the committee’s work possible.

3.53 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): This has been a very good debate. There may be only a few speakers here, but they are all very knowledgeable and their contributions have been of high quality. I am conscious of that as I am rather new to this brief, but I have found it fascinating in the last hour or so to listen to speakers who clearly know their subject very well.

This is an excellent report. It seems to me that the committee is always careful to balance justified support for a legitimate and important business in the UK with the question of adequate control and ethics. There is no doubt that the arms industry is important to the UK economy and to Britain’s influence abroad. However, our reputation is also dependent on the ethics and practice of those countries with which we trade, and on the transparency and probity of our relationships with those countries.

I will not attempt to deal with everything in the report today; rather, I just want to address a few specific issues that I hope the Minister can clarify. First, I want to say something about the power of the committee itself. It clearly works well. Everyone on it feels that it is an example of cross-departmental work that could be held up as a model for many other areas, where we could do with far more breaking up of silos and a different type of thinking. The committee’s reports have all been very thoughtful and the conclusions have been reached through consensus.

Despite those obvious strengths, however, it remains true that the committee has the power to scrutinise licensing of arms exports only retrospectively. It recommends in the report before us that it should have the power to scrutinise particularly sensitive arms transfers. The Government have not dealt with that recommendation in their response, and I wonder whether the Minister might do so today. The committee suggests that a trial period could be established so that such scrutiny could be applied to countries that have previously been under embargo, or in cases where there have been particularly sensitive or precedent-setting licences. I hope that the Government will agree to pilot that use of a trial period, if nothing else.

I want to deal with three specific committee recommendations before making some wider points about enforcement and Government support for the
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arms industry in general. The first recommendation is on re-export clauses, which other Members have already referred to. The committee recommended that

In their response to the report, the Government said that they would deal with that recommendation as part of the review of the Export Control Act 2002, but in their initial report they made no mention of that. What is the Government’s thinking on this subject, and are they intending to include re-export clauses when they produce their final response to the review of the 2002 Act?

The Chairman of the committee, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), mentioned the transfer of British-made maritime patrol aircraft from India to Burma. The thought of that transfer made us all feel deeply queasy, particularly if one thinks of last autumn, when we watched the oppression in Burma of monks, especially in Rangoon. It makes me very queasy to think that, whatever advances we may have made on control of arms transfers, we seem to have little influence beyond the initial arms transfer.

The second issue relates to extraterritorial jurisdiction. The committee made another very clear recommendation: that

The Government have made significant advances by including light weapons and small arms in the military list. I also acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Kingswood that small arms are the current weapons of mass destruction. I thought that that was a very good way of explaining the problem.

However, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) made an absolutely devastating critique of the anomalies concerning what is included in the military list at the moment and what is not. I cite the example of what might happen if aircraft and vehicles were sold to Chad. No licence would be required if that sale took place from abroad and those aircraft and vehicles could then be used on the border with Sudan. There is a separate point about whether they could then be re-exported into Sudan. Even if the Government were to adopt the re-export clauses that the committee has been calling for, it would make no difference in that situation, unless the arms or vehicles are already included under a licensing agreement.

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