Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  Q300  Chairman: Thank you. Can we move on to the conventional area? The British Government have played the leading role with the arms trade treaty progress so far. However, it has been put to us in evidence that we have received from witnesses that an arms trade treaty, however welcome, could set international standards that are lower than those of current national regimes and some other national agreements. For example, it would make no difference to UK policy on arms sales to countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. It would be weaker than the current Wassenaar agreement. Is that true? If so, does that mean that we would wish to retain our own national criteria and the Wassenaar voluntary arrangements in addition to an arms trade treaty, or would those all be subsumed within such a treaty?

  Bill Rammell: We have some of the strongest arms export control regimes internationally. What we are seeking to do through the arms trade treaty—you rightly described the leading position that we have taken in driving it forward—is to get the highest standards possible to stop the spread of conventional weapons and the abuse of human rights. We are certainly not looking for the lowest-common-denominator approach.

  Let me be clear: there is no intention and no sense in any way, shape or form that we would let the arms trade treaty dilute what we are committed to in our arms export control criteria. However, in taking it forward—and we are making progress—there is a balance to be struck between the strength of the treaty on one hand and, on the other, the number of states willing to sign up to it. Clearly, a key judgment for us will be ensuring that we do not concede too much in negotiations and end up with a universally adopted treaty with very little impact.

  That is what we are determined to do. We are not looking for a paper tiger; we are looking for a legally enforceable instrument. That is one of the differences with the Wassenaar arrangement. I am not a critic of the Wassenaar arrangement; in terms of establishing a framework and a forum for sharing information and best practice, it has been positive. However, if we can get a legally enforceable treaty through the ATT, that must be a step forward.

  Q301  Chairman: But the Wassenaar arrangement has a quite comprehensive list, whereas it has been put to us that in the so-called seven plus one negotiations, certain things would be excluded. For instance, categories of police and internal security equipment, and other equipment that can be used in human rights violations, would not be covered in an arms trade treaty.

  Bill Rammell: Given that we have not got to that detailed stage—we are trying to engage people, make progress and get international support—I am not sure how people have reached that conclusion. Our determination is—

  Chairman: Read the transcript of our evidence session with the people from the UK Working Group on Arms.

  Bill Rammell: Sure. People can have all sorts of fears and concerns—

  Chairman: They are experts in the area.

  Bill Rammell What I am telling you very strongly is that we want as strong a treaty as we can possibly deliver. The fact is that we have strong NGO support from Oxfam, Amnesty International and others for what we are doing. We also have welcome industry support. We have some strong support and some resistance internationally, and we must overcome that.

  Q302  Chairman: What about dual-use items? Should they be included in such a treaty?

  Bill Rammell: Ideally, in our view, yes, but we would need to ensure—this will be part of the detailed negotiations—that we do not frame it so as to choke off legitimate trade. Ideally, yes. We would like dual-use items to be part of it.

  Q303  Chairman: And what about the crucial debate about human rights? It perhaps reflects wider international problems with countries that do not wish to discuss human rights issues. Clearly, the European and British approach is much more focused on human rights than that of some countries in the rest of the world. How is that likely to shake out in the end?

  Bill Rammell: We have made it clear that human rights are part of the rationale for pushing this forward. I do not underestimate the difficulties and challenges, but when I was last at the Foreign Office, back in 2003 or 2004, we launched the proposal and led the way on it, and I think that we are in a stronger position now than we were then.

  A significant number of international states have indicated support for the concept. Some states are more reluctant, but in the coming year, work will be undertaken twice in the open-ended working group, and we hope to get to the stage of the UN General Assembly by October or November. In first committee, we would get agreements to a resolution that would set in train negotiations on the treaty during 2010. We are making progress, but there are challenges to be overcome.

  Q304  Chairman: One of those challenges is that countries such as Russia and China have abstained, and the position of the United States has not yet changed. Do you envisage any changes in those three countries so that they will be brought on board?

  Bill Rammell: I choose my words carefully, because if you want people to move, telegraphing that you are convinced that they—

  Chairman: Take the easy one: talk about President Obama.

  Bill Rammell: The US did not support the United Nations General Assembly resolution in December but, interestingly and encouragingly, the US delegation took part in the UN Preparatory Committee meeting on 23 January, which I think is a sign that the US remains engaged in discussions. Certainly, we are encouraging their attendance at the forthcoming open-ended working group. There are hopes of movement, but we have to keep working and negotiating.

  Q305  Chairman: And are Russia and China still sitting on the sidelines?

  Bill Rammell: Yes, but I do not think that we are in the position of outright hostility; rather, we are in the position of needing to persuade and convince those states to move.

  Q306  Chairman: Is every EU country on board? Are they all pushing in the same direction, or are some dragging their feet?

  Paul Arkwright: There is an EU common position on the arms trade treaty, which is fully supportive.

  Q307  Chairman: I know that there is a common position, but EU common positions sometimes reflect a spectrum of views. Are any of our EU partners not really helping us?

  Paul Arkwright: No. All our EU partners are helping us, some extremely enthusiastically, if I may put it that way—

  Q308  Chairman: Some but not all?

  Paul Arkwright: Not all have the resources to put behind it, but the French, for example, have been extremely helpful in supporting us.

  Q309  Chairman: Are any EU countries with an arms export industry reluctant?

  Paul Arkwright: Not to my knowledge.

  Q310  Chairman: That is helpful.

  Finally, you said that you assessed the outcome of the third biennial meeting of states in 2008 as reasonable in regard to small arms and light weapons rather than the arms trade treaty. Do you think that that process will continue, or will it accelerate, because of the changes in the US to which we referred?

  Bill Rammell: First, there has been progress and, other things being equal, I think that it will continue, with this caveat: I think the Obama Administration is very good news, but they are not going to stop every challenge that we face in the world. However, that instrument is making progress, and it is likely to continue to do so.

  Q311  Sir John Stanley: Those of us on this Committee who went to southern Lebanon after the last war, when Israel again invaded, and saw for ourselves the cluster munitions in the fields, on trees, in the bushes, and lying around all over the place after they had been rained down in extraordinary numbers in the 72 hours between the signing of the ceasefire and its coming into effect, were left in no doubt about the terrible danger that they present to the civilian population. We welcome the Government's success with others in getting the Oslo convention against cluster munitions. We might be allowed the say that that success owed something to the Committee's consistent prodding, and indeed to the Arms Export Controls Committee.

  Will you clarify the Government's policy on trying to get more widespread adherence to the ban on cluster munitions? On the radio this morning, they talked about cluster munitions being used in Sri Lanka at the moment, so they remain a serious worldwide threat.

  Can you explain why you believe that getting a watered-down cluster munitions protocol to the UN convention on certain conventional weapons might undo the gains of the Oslo convention?

  Bill Rammell: I think that the Committee and the Quadripartite Committee played positive roles. In December, we joined more than 90 countries in signing the convention and, internationally, we have played a leading role. In terms of our own actions, we will ratify as soon as possible. In the meantime we have begun implementing the key provisions and have taken immediate steps to prevent proliferation by making cluster munitions subject to the most stringent trade controls. However, signing the convention is just the beginning. Our aim is a global treaty on munitions, and we are looking to work with international partners to secure principle and practical sign-up and the widest possible adherence to the convention. We will continue to work for meaningful action, including on tackling transfers of weapons under the UN disarmament framework and the convention on certain conventional weapons.

  Could you repeat the question about the protocol?

  Q312  Sir John Stanley: We would like to understand why the Government do not consider it a risk that going down the UN route to achieve a protocol on cluster munitions within the UN convention on conventional weapons might lead to a seriously watered-down UN protocol, which would seriously undermine what has been achieved in the Oslo convention.

  Bill Rammell: The protocol is, if you like, a step along the road and a rung up the ladder for those countries that cannot yet sign up to the convention for financial reasons. For a number of states, that is a legitimate concern. In those circumstances, it must be better to get some controls—on exports, for example—rather than none, on major producers. That is what is driving our approach. Ultimately, we want universal adoption, but if we can help some people along the way, it makes sense.

  Q313  Sir John Stanley: There seems to us to be a risk that you will undermine the effectiveness of the Oslo convention by going down a halfway-stage route. What are you doing to try to ensure that that watering-down process does not occur? Countries given the option of either signing up to the tougher Oslo convention and having on offer a nice, comfortable, watered-down UN protocol will say, "Oh yes, we'll sign up to the UN one, and forget about Oslo."

  Bill Rammell: Our track record of supporting the Oslo convention has been very strong.

  Sir John Stanley: I know. I am thinking about other countries around the world, such as Sri Lanka.

  Bill Rammell: Absolutely. And in all our bilateral and multilateral contacts, we make it clear that that is a short-term step towards eventual adoption of the Oslo convention. The alternative is that you have a significant number of states that, for financial reasons, cannot get to that signing position. I think, therefore, that it makes sense, as a short-term measure, to get them part way along. However, we continue to argue forcefully that everyone has to get there.

  Q314  Sir John Stanley: A "best is the enemy of the good" policy then?

  Bill Rammell: That is not quite how I would put it, but I understand where you are coming from.

  Q315  Chairman: I have one final question about the commitment to clear the mined areas on the Falkland Islands. There was some criticism of the fact that we have asked for another 10 years to do that. Will we meet that 10-year target? More importantly, do you not think that, for whatever reason—it might be understandable—it has damaged our credibility and reputation internationally on such issues?

  Bill Rammell: No, I do not, objectively. For the record, we remain committed to the Ottawa convention and its aims. Via an extension, we now have until March 2019 to de-mine the Falkland Islands. On any objective analysis, we are among the strongest supporters. For example, through the Department for International Development we are contributing about £10 million per year to humanitarian de-mining activity in the most dangerous and heavily mined developing countries, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Laos and Sri Lanka. Like you, I have visited the Falklands, where there has not been an incident or accident in 25 years resulting from this. We are going ahead. Detailed studies have been undertaken and the contracts are now in place for three de-mining area activities on the Falklands. In Angola, Laos and Sri Lanka, the population say, "For God's sake, do something about this." People risk being injured and killed. I did not meet one person or elected representative on the Falklands who said, given the very clear signage and that everybody knows where they are, that they thought that this was a priority. In fact, Falkland Islanders and representatives have said to me, "Of course, you should be spending it on those other areas."

  Q316  Chairman: We understand the argument, and we have had the same conversations with Falkland Islanders, but the problem is the international propaganda argument. If we argue vociferously for a global programme within a certain time scale, but then ask for an extension, other people will be able to use that same argument for less legitimate reasons than those which you have cited.

  Bill Rammell: First, I misspoke—the contracts are not yet in place, but they will be. There is a plan to put them in place. Secondly, we were not on our own. My memory is that the deadline came up for 18 states this year, 15 of which applied for an extension. All sorts of people will make all sorts of cases, depending on the circumstances, but you have to look at the evidence. Our very strong support for an international mechanism to tackle land mines and our very strong financial support, in putting our money where our mouth is and supporting de-mining activities, means that one cannot credibly—people will advance all sorts of arguments when they are in a tight corner—make a case that this country and this Government are undermining that.

  Q317  Sir John Stanley: I am glad to hold up my hand to the fact that, when I was a Minister, I ordered the halting of anti-personnel mine clearances outside Stanley after the Falklands war. After the third bomb—or ordnance—disposal soldier had his legs blown off, I was not prepared to see any more casualties among our servicemen, so I endorse what you have said. The technological difficulties of clearing that one remaining sandy beach, with constant tide changes, and of clearing the boggy area between Stanley and the beach, which is a heavily mined peat bog, without damaging our personnel were insuperable. I think you are entirely right to be extremely cautious and to give first priority to the preservation of life and limb.

  Bill Rammell: I will simply say that the whole thrust of the Ottawa convention is about saving life, and I do not think that that comes into play in the Falklands.

  Q318  Sir Menzies Campbell: Will we meet the 2019 deadline?

  Bill Rammell: As I said earlier, we remain committed to the Ottawa convention and its aims, and that is what we are working towards.

  Q319  Sir Menzies Campbell: When will the contracts be placed?

  Bill Rammell: I thought that they already had been for the three areas, but my understanding is that it will certainly be in the near future. I will write to you setting that out.[2]

  Chairman: Mr. Rammell, Mr. Arkwright and Mrs Leslie, thank you very much for coming. We have covered an enormous area, but we might write to you about one or two areas to seek further information. I am grateful to you all. We will now conclude.

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