Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2011): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2009, Quarterly Reports for 2010, licensing policy and review of export control legislation - Committees on Arms Export Controls Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 122-179)

ALISTAIR BURT MP, DAVID HALL AND DAVID VINCENT

24 JANUARY 2011

  Q122  Chair: Minister, welcome to your first appearance before the Committee on Arms Export Controls. Welcome also to Mr David Hall and Mr David Vincent. Just to reassure you, Minister, I asked our previous ministerial witness the same question that I am going to put to you. As I said to the previous Minister, you should not take this question in any way personally. The point I wish to put to you is that the last report from the previous Government, which was the United Kingdom strategic export controls annual report 2008, came with the signatures of the four Secretaries of State—David Miliband, Lord Mandelson, Douglas Alexander and Bob Ainsworth—and was 100 pages in length. The first report from the present coalition Government is signed off, not by the Secretaries of State, but by junior Ministers—apart from yourself, there is Mark Prisk, Alan Duncan and Nick Harvey—and is about half the length. My question to you is whether that is an indication that the coalition Government have downgraded the importance attached to arms export controls and arms control generally?

  Alistair Burt: No, I don't think it is. First, the conciseness of the report is a reflection of the fact that the present Government have clearly been involved for rather less time and were offering an opinion on work done by the previous Government. Secondly, I don't think conciseness in itself is a matter for concern, providing all the information is there. I also don't think the change in personnel in relation to the Ministers is of significance. Clearly, everything that junior Ministers do falls under the overall aegis of their Secretaries of State, but perhaps it is helpful to have those Ministers who are actively engaged with the work on a day-to-day basis signing off the report, rather than just the Secretaries of State. Perhaps that will provide a nice pattern for others, but absolutely no sense of downgrading at all is conveyed by how it has been handled.

  Chair: Thank you. I would make the point that, from the inception of this Committee, I think I am correct in saying that it has always been signed off by the four Cabinet Ministers concerned. You and your colleagues might want to reflect on whether that practice should be restored or not. It may be an issue that the Committee will want to reflect upon when it makes its report.

  Alistair Burt: Indeed.

  Chair: First, we want to address the new Government's policy in this important area. Nadhim Zahawi will start.

  Q123  Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you, Sir John, and welcome, Minister. How much importance does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office give to the promotion of UK arms exports? In dealing with that question, will you focus on what the role of the Foreign Office is in promoting and facilitating arms exports, and in what ways this Government's policy on arms export will differ from that of their predecessors?

  Alistair Burt: Thank you, Mr Zahawi. I have a brief opening statement that covers much of the ground, and I should like to read it if I may, Chairman. It is meant to be brief.

  Chair: Minister, may I say for the future that we attach great importance to using the time for Members to put questions to you? I don't think there's any good reason normally why, if Ministers want to make a statement, they should not commit it in writing to the Committee before its proceedings start. I hope it is a short statement.

  Alistair Burt: It is, and I think that it effectively covers the question raised.

  Chair: Please proceed, Minister.

  Alistair Burt: First, if it does not take up too much time, I should like to congratulate you, Sir John, on your role as Chair, and to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to deal directly with your questions. I greatly value the role that the Committees perform in scrutinising the
Government's strategic export controls policy and practice. My officials and I look forward to working constructively with the Committees in this important area, and we would be very happy to host a visit by the Committees to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on strategic export controls, should members find that helpful.

  The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK's strategic export controls are robust, effective and transparent. Effective export controls are essential for the maintenance of the United Kingdom's security, and for the promotion of our increased prosperity in these challenging economic times. Effective strategic export controls ensure that the UK's defence industry can compete internationally in supplying the legitimate defence needs of countries around the world, while at the same time ensuring that the supply of UK defence equipment does not undermine sustainable development in the developing world and that UK arms do not reach the hands of those who would use them for internal oppression, external aggression or human rights violations.

  Effective export controls are also central to the core agenda of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of protecting the UK's security, pursuing commercial diplomacy and promoting UK values abroad. This Government's approach to strategic export controls will remain firmly based on a case-by-case assessment of all licence applications for the export of controlled goods and equipment, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to play an important role in the provision of information against which informed assessments are made.

  Finally, the Government are also committed to ensuring high global standards. I am aware of some concerns that the incoming Government might not have an arms trade treaty as a similar priority to that of the previous Government. I hope that both the remarks of the Foreign Secretary on values and on the ATT and the practical evidence of activities suggest that those fears are unfounded. The United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role in helping to ensure that ATT negotiations progress to a successful conclusion at the diplomatic conference in 2012. As in July last year, the United Kingdom will play an active role in the UN negotiations in February and beyond, and officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to work energetically for a robust and effective arms trade treaty in close co-operation with colleagues across Government, the NGO and faith communities, the UK defence industry and our international partners.

  I hope, by that, that the Committee will see that our approach to arms control matters will be very similar to that of the previous Government. It is a central priority to what we consider to be important in terms of values and British interests around the world.

  Q124  Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you for that, Minister. Does the Foreign Office have any concerns about boosting the list of priority markets? Obviously, selling to Europe or America is much easier and safer. The list that we have been provided with includes countries such as Algeria, Pakistan and Libya. Thinking through the recent events in Tunisia, does the Foreign Office have any concerns about boosting the list? In answer, Minister, can you tell us how you ensure that there is no conflict of interest between the dual roles of foreign diplomats who are expected to work at conflict prevention and, at the same time, to promote arms exports to those countries?

  Alistair Burt: They are both fair questions. First, we firmly believe that the robustness of the criteria with which we deal will continue to cover new areas where there might be opportunities of exports. One of the things that we might come back to time and again—I am sure that you have considered this with my predecessors—is the importance of a case-by-case consideration against the various criteria rather than of external circumstances as a special case, which relates to particular conditions within emerging new markets. If the criteria are robust enough, those issues will be covered. The short answer to the first question is that there are no worries about expanding the opportunity for exports, because there is a firm belief that the robustness of the criteria will protect the values that we uphold in dealing with the system and ensure that we do not run into trouble or put other people in trouble. That is clear.

  To your second question about any possible dilemma or contradiction in the role of those who operate the policy, particularly those abroad, I would again say no. Ultimately, it is the criteria for arms export that trump everything else. Sales are important. We believe that a legitimate arms industry, as with all the NGOs with which we deal, has its place in securing effective defence for those countries that need it, and it is a perfectly straightforward business for us to be involved in. None the less, the commercial does not trump the criteria. By the very nature of their work, colleagues are used to dealing with applications that will force them to consider, as they do their work, the balance of an application. That, of course, comes back to those who are charged with the responsibility of dealing with the criteria on a case-by-case basis when an application has been made. You could legitimately ask me whether I have the same things in mind when I'm taking a view on an application. Indeed, I am aware of both drivers, but clearly the criteria, and the importance of the criteria, to safeguard the whole concept of arms exports is overwhelmingly the most important factor.

  Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you very much.

  Q125  Chair: Minister, will you address the conundrum that is behind these questions? In the real world, is it not the case that if diplomats around the world follow the Prime Minister's instruction, as they will, the first priority is to go out and sell for Britain. That includes selling arms exports and supporting those contracts. Is it not the case in the real world that you don't conclude a successful arms deal with some of the countries that are on your target list if, at the same time, you stand up very firmly to them on their human rights violations?

  Alistair Burt: Again, Chair, we must be clear about this. The criteria clearly cover that issue in terms of those with whom we will deal. In the real world, both those who are out seeking entirely appropriate business for the United Kingdom and those who have to sign off applications are well aware of the increased transparency and inquiries that surround the matters with which we are engaged, not least you yourselves and others who take a keen interest in this matter. I don't think any diplomat or Minister wants to be placed in a position in which they could be accused of taking a decision for the wrong reasons, if something subsequently went horribly wrong and a decision was examined minutely, as decisions should be and must be. So I fully understand the dilemma that you and the Committee are seeking to get to, but I think real-world pressures exist not only before a decision is reached, but after a decision is reached. We're well aware of the importance of the scrutiny and that any decision needs to stand up months or even years afterwards, so I hope that sense of responsibility would also be a significant driving factor in decisions that colleagues were being asked to make.

  Chair: We come now to the criterion regulating arms exports—criterion 8. Malcolm Bruce.

  Q126  Malcolm Bruce: Thank you, Sir John. Criterion 8 is designed to ensure that we do not export to countries with weak economies, where the cost of buying the exports would be unbalancing to their economic or political situation. I have two questions. One relates to the evidence that we were given last time, which was that there was a recognition that there needs to be some agreement across Europe as to the use of this criterion. As I understand it, on 24 November in Brussels, the Dutch Government promoted a seminar to discuss that and determine whether there should be a change of policy. Can you give us an indication of what happened at that seminar and whether there are any implications of policy change? We have a copy of the slides from DFID and Oxfam that were presented there, and my next question might derive slightly from those, but what was discussed at the seminar and what effect might it have?

  Alistair Burt: Absolutely. It was an important seminar, and I appreciate your drawing attention to it. The seminar was well attended, by a number of EU member states as well as by ourselves. The agenda comprised the presentation from Oxfam, followed by questions and answers and then a closed session involving member states, with presentations given both by ourselves and by the Netherlands. Our presentation was given by a representative of DFID, which is the lead Department. The presentation explained how we applied criterion 8 in our domestic export controls, and the methodology used.

  We believe that the seminar was successful in its objective of sharing best member state practice. It was recognised that the criterion is one of the most difficult and complex of all the criteria to apply, and it was agreed that we would benefit from further discussion on the issue, particularly to ensure uniformity of applications. We will be returning to the issue. Can I also say this? We see it very much as a matter for member states. The issue is difficult. We don't currently see the need to use the expertise of the EU External Action Service in assessing these applications. So the short answer is, the seminar was very important; the issue is still being considered; it is a very difficult matter to apply; and we are looking at how best we can co-ordinate the use of it.

  Q127  Malcolm Bruce: When you say "difficult", you mean diplomatically and politically difficult, rather than objectively, in that France apparently has little difficulty and seems to use it with considerable enthusiasm, yet Sweden won't use it at all, because it thinks it's impertinent to determine what the arms export or import policy of a Government should be. That suggests there is a pretty wide range of opinion.

  Oxfam—this has been of concern to me—presented the case study of Pakistan, making the point that the estimated combined budget for health, social protection and the environment of Pakistan for 2010-11 is €77 million, and the EU arms exports to Pakistan in 2008 were €685 million. That seems to be pretty clear evidence that criterion 8 is very relevant but doesn't appear to be applied.

  Alistair Burt: First, in response to the suggestion that some countries use it more than others and therefore what are we doing, our experience is that, in applications to the United Kingdom, a number of cases where ultimately criterion 8 might be applied are stopped from getting that far because, in the discussions taken forward, it becomes clear that a licence is not going to be issued. Accordingly, we rarely have to apply criterion 8 as the final decision maker.

  Q128  Malcolm Bruce: Have you made any comparison between the UK and France?

  Alistair Burt: Yes.

  Q129  Malcolm Bruce: It seems that we are very comparable countries—France uses it a lot and we use it a little.

  Alistair Burt: I think it says more about how the process is approached and at what stage decisions are reached than anything else.

  Q130  Malcolm Bruce: Does that mean that you apply other criteria before you get to criterion 8?

  Alistair Burt: Yes. That is absolutely right. In our dealings with those who are seeking the licence, the stages we go through knock out some applications that, if they had gone all the way, might have attracted a criterion 8 decision. They are dealt with before that stage is reached, which is why we don't have so many criterion 8 decisions on the books, as it were.

  Q131  Malcolm Bruce: May I finally pursue the Pakistan point, which concerns me? I can understand from a foreign policy point of view—from our engagement with Pakistan for security and other reasons—why we might have a judgment about our relationship and, indeed, our arms relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is pretty well on the threshold of being a low-income country, and yet it is a priority in terms of export promotion. Is that what Pakistan really needs, when it is one of the poorest countries on the planet and is suffering all those disasters? Are weapons from Europe really what Pakistan needs?

  Alistair Burt: You raise in your question two of the more difficult issues surrounding this. The first is the subjective nature of the consideration. Secondly, there is the replacing of a local judgement with an external judgment outside. The charge can be made that developing countries need to be able to take their own decisions in some of these areas. Whatever Pakistan's other difficulties may be, it is also an area where security and defence are matters of the utmost consideration to its governance.

  We concede that this is a very, very difficult subjective criteria to apply. If it were to be applied ruthlessly from one particular standpoint, it might make a significant difference to arms exports—perhaps an unfair one. That was the reason for the seminar and for the concern. Your concern about the potential risk of these exports, bearing in mind the development needs of the country, are very real and we share them. That is why the criteria is there, but there are also other factors to consider. In highlighting Pakistan, we are discussing a country with so many difficult issues, including security and protection. That is just an example of how difficult it can actually be.

  Chair: Minister, in your opening statement, you referred to the arms trade treaty. You won't be surprised to know that we have some questions for you on that important issue. I call Mike Gapes.

  Q132    Mike Gapes: Minister, you have said that concerns that the coalition Government are pursuing a weaker policy than that of their predecessor are unfounded. When the previous Committee asked Ministers in the previous Parliament about making a choice between a weak consensus-based arms trade treaty or a robust treaty that had fewer countries involved, we were told that they would prefer a robust treaty to a weak, consensus-based one. Yet, the statement that has been attributed to the present Government is that you are going to strive for consensus to ensure that the correct balance is struck between the strongest possible treaty and the widest participation of states. May I put it to you that that is a shift of position?

  Alistair Burt: It's always a dilemma, if you've got lots of people around the table and you're trying to get a common objective that we all know very well. If by consensus we mean that we want to ensure that it is a robust treaty because the key players are a part of it, that might in a way give you a sense, Mr Gapes, of squaring the difference. To have a treaty that doesn't have the major players involved and part of it will negate its value and all the work that's been done. Equally, to have something that isn't worth the paper it's written on won't do the job. At present, my understanding is that the degree of interaction with the major players involved—the industry, the NGOs and respective Governments—is very strong, and the determination among all to produce an effective and viable treaty is something that drives everyone.

  Accordingly, I think at present, our position that we should strive to get both a robust and a consensual treaty is a good one. I don't think we've yet reached the point of saying, "We now have to decide between these two objectives," but certainly, if the treaty lacks the support of key and important players, then I'm not sure that our work won't have been in vain. That's where we are at present.

  Q133  Mike Gapes: But you're aware that China, India and Russia all abstained on the vote to begin formal negotiations on the treaty, aiming to get the treaty signed in 2012? I put it to you that you will have to pay a price if you want China, India and Russia to sign up to that treaty.

  Alistair Burt: Well, at this stage, we're putting a great deal of faith in the negotiation process that is under way. I was asked at the beginning about our attitude toward it and our determination, and whether or not there had been any changes in the way in which we were dealing with it. The first phase of the process—the negotiation phase—we think has been successfully concluded. That was the work that John Duncan was principally engaged in. We now go on, having reached that first stage, to take it forward with the outline timetable leading through to 2012.

  I think it should be noted that the countries that you have mentioned are all engaged in preparation for the July meeting. I think that indicates that patient negotiation work can bring other people back into play. So, although not everybody was on board at the start, the whole point of this process, if it's effective, is to help convince people that there is something that we all very much want to see. I think we have a degree of faith that the process on which we've embarked and in which the United Kingdom is such a key player will bring other people round, but it will be a continuous process. Like so many of these things, we might not know any potential trade-offs until quite far down the road.

  Q134  Mike Gapes: You said the United Kingdom is a key player.   

  Alistair Burt: Yes.

  Q135  Mike Gapes: I think it's fair to say—the NGOs have said it over the past couple of years—that the UK is a key player within this process. Since the election of President Obama, we now see that the UK is no longer the lead on this process. The United States has taken a much more important role. Doesn't that mean that our influence is actually less? Given that the US has a different attitude to the possible outcome and what concessions will be made, isn't the reality that we are now following an American lead on the treaty rather than providing the lead ourselves, as we were? For understandable reasons, we were providing that lead until the change in the US Administration.

  Alistair Burt: I think it's a bit tough to be accused of being successful at the kick-off to get people engaged when a significant player, encouraged by the success that we have shown, subsequently comes on board. The size and importance of the United States in these matters can't be denied, but it's probably a measure of the success of the United Kingdom that we've been able to take the lead that we have. The United States is clearly engaged, after the success of what we've been doing, but I don't think the Committee should necessarily fear that the influence of the United Kingdom in these matters has been affected.

  I was in New York for the end of the non-proliferation treaty discussions—not the ATT, but just as a reasonable parallel. Seeing colleagues at work in New York and the way other countries were working with them on such a key aspect—it has parallels with this—convinced me that the way in which we were engaged, we were successfully involved. I take your point, but I don't think that necessarily indicates a complete absence of United Kingdom influence.

  Q136  Mike Gapes: But it is true, isn't it, that the American approach is much more orientated towards a consensus than the position that we had before?

    Alistair Burt: I go back to what I said before. It is clearly a matter of policy for the United Kingdom that we want to see a robust arms trade treaty. We set that out very clearly and the Foreign Secretary, in his recent speech relating to both values and commerce, used the ATT as an example of what we could do to promote both values and commerce. As I indicated before, the point of consensus is to ensure that we have all the major players involved, to ensure that the treaty is effective and does its job.

At this stage, trying to make the split between a robust approach and consensus is probably not necessary, and it has got to be in the interests of the US to want a strong and robust treaty as well. So I do not think that that factor should be taken out of the equation either.

  Q137  Mike Gapes: What role are we playing within the negotiations? Are we, if you like, an outrider for a more robust treaty, or are we a close associate to assist the Americans in providing the leadership?

  Alistair Burt: I think that the right way to characterise it is to say that we are still led and driven by the values that put us in the driving seat in relation to the initial negotiations; those values are what we are guided by. We do not see ourselves either as anyone's outrider, or as taking a role on a white charger going off in the opposite direction.

  If this treaty is to be effective, and bearing in mind the degree of interest in and support for what the Government have been seeking to do over a number of years and are seeking to do now—from the industry, from other Governments and from NGOs—it ought to be something on which we are all moving generally in the same direction. I think we see ourselves as further promoting the values that brought us to this stage, rather than going off in a separate direction.

  Q138  Mike Gapes: May I ask you about our own team? Has there been any reduction in the resources available for our team that is negotiating on the arms trade treaty, given the financial pressures and other pressures that the FCO faces at the moment?

  Alistair Burt: No, I don't think so. We have changed the structure slightly, as you are aware, because of the change in the position of the negotiations. That is why John Duncan's role has been changed. We keep the permanent representative in Geneva, but the discussions are going to move more to New York than Geneva, and they have been brought back in-house to the heads of the respective departments in the FCO. I am not aware—

  Q139  Mike Gapes: Perhaps you could send us a note about this. That would be helpful.

  Alistair Burt: I can do that. Genuinely, I am not aware that that change in structure reflects a change in resources. This is a significant priority for the Government and for the FCO.[1]

  Q140  Mike Gapes: Finally, will Ambassador Duncan remain in post as the UK ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament until the signing of the treaty?

  Alistair Burt: No. I think that his role comes to an end this summer.

  Q141  Mike Gapes: So, for the key period after these preparatory meetings in 2011, he will be leaving and somebody else will then have to deal with the actual conference in 2012.

  Alistair Burt: Yes.

  Q142  Mike Gapes: Clearly, he has huge experience.

  Alistair Burt: He has, but there is also huge experience within the Department and among his colleagues who have been working on this treaty with him. I do not think that we can say that any one individual should necessarily always be associated with one thing and continue with it beyond a particular point. It is the right point. He has made a huge contribution to non-proliferation, particularly the conclusion of the treaty last summer. He has done his time in this particular area. Again, I think that John Duncan's retirement from this area is not to the detriment of the work, and there are structures in place to continue to ensure that the expertise we have in the Department is appropriately deployed.

  Q143  Mike Gapes: He will have an equally high-powered successor?

  Alistair Burt: Yes. I believe that the structure we have will enable us to do the job.

  Mike Gapes: Okay. Thank you.

  Q144  Chair: Sorry—can you just clarify that answer to Mr Gapes? Are you assuring us, Minister, that Mr Duncan will be replaced in post, in the same position, by somebody of equal seniority and capability?

  Alistair Burt: The short answer is yes. As I indicated before, Sir John, the structure is changing. We are keeping the permanent representative in Geneva. The leadership is being transferred to the heads of two departments in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But the whole team is a cross-Whitehall team and includes members from the FCO, the MOD, the Business Department and DFID, all working closely with experts in the NGOs and the defence industry. That has not changed. That expertise is there in those who will robustly put the case forward.

  Q145  Chair: And we will have the same level of senior representation in Geneva—correct?

  Alistair Burt: No, that representation will be in London, as I indicated, because most of the work is moving from Geneva and, effectively, to New York and capitals. We have changed the structure accordingly. The focus of the attention of the treaty, now that we have reached the stage we have, moves away from Geneva. That's why there's been the change in structure.

  Q146  Chair: Can we have a note, please, as to what we will keep in place covering arms control issues in Geneva, where a great deal of important activity takes place?

  Alistair Burt: Of course.

  Chair: Thank you.

  Q147  Malcolm Bruce: May I ask a couple of specific questions on small arms? Obviously, it is very welcome that America has come on board for the treaty, but it is also well known that it is opposed to including ammunition in the small arms agreement. Do the UK Government go along with that, or are they still arguing the case? There is evidence that where ammunition is in short supply, that saves lives, to put it at its simplest. There is genuine concern that ammunition should not be excluded. There are also practical considerations about the registration and marking of weapons and a view that the basic, simple agreement should be that if a weapon is not marked, it's illegal, but if it is marked, it can be recorded and registered. That won't solve the problem, but it makes things easier to control.

  Alistair Burt: On the specifics of the treaty, you might highlight a series of issues that have not yet been decided and all of which are complex, and ammunition is one. Our discussions with the United States have highlighted a number of areas where we have a great deal of common thinking, and there are a range of views among UN member states as to what should be the scope of the treaty. We support a wide scope, which would include ammunition. As to much of the talk on the detail of the treaty—that's now what people are getting into—some of the areas are so complex that, at this stage, distinguishing between our views won't clarify the situation for anyone. But on ammunition, as I say, we have a clear view that we would like the scope to include it.

  Malcolm Bruce: Okay. Thank you.

  Q148  Chair: Is the Government's policy to try to secure the inclusion of dual-use items or not?

  Alistair Burt: It's not our view at the moment, no.

  Q149  Chair: Dual-use items should be excluded—that is the Government's policy position, is it?

  Alistair Burt: That's our present position.

  Chair: Turning now to individual countries, Richard Burden.

  Q150  Richard Burden: I would like to cover two countries, the first being Israel and the second being Saudi Arabia. You'll be aware that the use to which arms exports to Israel may have been put has been a matter of some concern to this Committee for some time and, indeed, appeared to be a matter of concern to the last Government, as well. You will know that, in 2000, assurances were given by Israel that UK-originated equipment would not be used by the Israeli defence forces in the occupied territories. In 2002, it transpired that that assurance was not being followed by Israel. In the last report by the previous Committee on Arms Export Controls, there was fairly clear concern expressed that "arms exports to Israel were almost certainly used in Operation Cast Lead…in direct contravention to the UK Government's policy that UK arms exports to Israel should not be used in the Occupied Territories", and we asked that broader lessons be learned from that. Could you give us an update on where UK policy is in relation to UK arms exports to Israel being used in the occupied territories?

  Alistair Burt: The use of arms in a specific area or a specific territory is not part of the criteria. What the criteria seek to make clear is that it's the end use of the arms which is the determining factor.

  Q151  Richard Burden: So is that a change?

  Alistair Burt: No, it's not a change.[2]

  Q152  Richard Burden: So why did we seek an assurance from Israel in 2000 that UK-originated equipment would not be used in the occupied territories—and receive such an assurance?

  Alistair Burt: The criterion as drawn, because it allows us to look at past behaviour and to take into account what has happened, is sufficiently robust to ensure that, in a situation where arms may have been used in the occupied territories, it would be highly likely that the criterion that affects the application would ensure that there probably would not be an export licence granted. What we seek to make clear is that it isn't about the territory, at the end of the day; it's the end use. The criterion is sufficiently robust to cover any external factor like the territory in which arms might be used; and that would always be covered by the criterion. Our policy has not changed from the previous Government's in relation to the use of arms in the occupied territories, or the criteria that would be applied in making a decision about whether or not an arms export to Israel would be likely to end up being used there.

  Q153  Richard Burden: Given the fact that Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and arguably is still in occupation of Gaza—despite the fact that settlers are no longer there—in contravention of successive UN resolutions, to which we are a signatory, could I ask what activities you, the Government, feel would be acceptable for the use of UK-exported arms to Israel in those territories?

  Alistair Burt: Well, it's impossible to say, because I don't think we can produce a list and say that if the export licence was for this particular set of goods, they would be automatically accepted as something for which a licence would be granted; but as we know, humanitarian equipment, for example, is something which might be asked for and might be used.

  Q154  Richard Burden: Humanitarian equipment isn't the subject of arms export controls, is it?

  Alistair Burt: No, but there are some items that can be used which turn out to be used for humanitarian purposes, but I don't think I want to get drawn down there. The point is, an application would be made for the use of certain equipment. We believe that the licensing criteria are sufficient, and sufficiently robust, that application for goods destined to be used outside the criteria of the licensing would be rejected. I don't think it's a question of producing a list and saying, "If it was x, y and z products it would be acceptable; if it's a, b and c it isn't." All the criteria that are effective in relation to our consideration of arms export licences apply as robustly to Israel and the occupied territories as they would do anywhere else in the world. It's not the territory, it's not the place, that makes the difference; it's the end user.

  Richard Burden: The end user?

  Alistair Burt: It's the end use. Any deployment of arms within the occupied territories would be a significant factor to be taken into account in any licence application.

  Q155  Richard Burden: Of course, the previous Government did revoke a number of licences, particularly after Operation Cast Lead.

  Alistair Burt: Indeed.

  Q156  Richard Burden: We have been assured that there would be rigorous monitoring of what UK arms exports for which licences had previously been given were being used for, and could still be used for. What monitoring is taking place?

  Alistair Burt: Exactly the same monitoring as has been in place up to now.

  Q157  Richard Burden: Well, we were a bit unclear about what that was.

  Alistair Burt: We get information from NGOs and those who would see the use of weapons on the ground. I don't believe that the monitoring process has changed in any way since that of the previous Government.

  Q158  Richard Burden: Are there any results from the monitoring in the period the coalition has been in office?

  Alistair Burt: I am not aware of any licences that have been changed to date, but remember—

  Q159Richard Burden: No, no, no: this is about the use of equipment for which licences have already been given. That is where the concern has arisen.

  Alistair Burt: Where applications are new, plainly, we can take a view on whether they fit the criteria. If information is available to us which leads us to believe that licence criteria have been breached, then that allows for a revocation of the licence. We do not go through continuous monitoring of how equipment may be used, but if it comes to notice through NGOs and others who watch on the ground that there is a potential breach of licence, that would be investigated. At present, I am not aware that any such information has come to us over the past few months. That information is not, as it were, routinely collected, but we are always available to collect it.

  Q160Richard Burden: Okay. Tell me if I've got this right about the Government's position: despite the fact that Israel is in occupation in contravention of UN resolutions to which we are a signatory, the fact that UK-originated arms are used in those territories is not of itself a problem for the British Government. It would only be what those arms or components are used for that may be a problem. However, the British Government do not proactively check what those arms or components will be used for, but rely on other people giving reports to them, and, in those cases, they may or may not take a view. Is that the Government's position?

  Alistair Burt: If there are any such arms there, first, they will have been used under licences granted by a previous Government—

  Q161  Richard Burden: Well, it's pretty clear that there has been. The previous Government acknowledged that that was the case in relation to the armoured personnel carriers in 2002. It's pretty clear that UK-originated arms were used in Operation Cast Lead, isn't it?

  Alistair Burt: Yes, but that results in the revocation of licences.

  Q162  Richard Burden: Of new ones.

  Alistair Burt: No, of extant licences. Where there are still goods to be supplied under a licence application that had been granted, those would be stopped in the case of evidence coming to light of how they had been used. It would be extant licences, as well as new licences, that would be affected by information that came to the Government about the use of goods.

  Q163  Richard Burden: But I'm still trying to establish if you are doing any proactive monitoring at all. Are you just waiting for somebody to say, "Look, we think there's a problem here"?

    Alistair Burt: In the current process, as you will know as well as most, there is intense scrutiny of what happens on the ground in the occupied territories, and rightly so. That information feeds back to posts. If information comes in that indicates that a licence criterion has been breached, it would result in an inquiry that would allow for the revocation of a licence. I do not believe it is a process that, at present, we need to be more proactive on than is already the case. There is an extensive and, as I indicated, quite proper network of scrutiny of what happens in the occupied territories to give us the information we need. It is important for the Committee to know that we would take exactly the same view of breach of criteria as that taken in the past, because, again, the criteria allow for that. Where information is found that shows that there has been a breach of the criteria, existing licences can be revoked and that feeds into information on new licences.

  Q164  Richard Burden: Okay. I want to move on to Saudi Arabia, but perhaps I could ask, because you wouldn't have this information at your fingertips, if you could check where allegations have been made and given to the UK Government about UK-originated arms for which licences have been given and which have been investigated, and what the results of those investigations are.

  Alistair Burt: Yes.

  Q165  Chair: Richard, just before you move on to Saudi Arabia, may I ask the Minister one further thing? One can debate the merits of two different policies, but I find it impossible to understand your position and your argument that you feel there has been no change of policy.

  The previous Government were absolutely clear that they wished to have a categorical assurance from the Israeli Government, and they got that in writing, dated 29 November 2000. It was reproduced in the House, and it said, "No UK originated equipment nor any UK originated systems/sub-systems/components are used as part of the Israel Defence Force's activities in the Territories". Yet, the new Government—the present Government—in their formal response to our last report said, "The UK Government does not have a policy that UK arms exports to Israel should not be used in the OPTs." Surely, Minister, it is absolutely crystal clear that there has been a significant change of policy between the two Governments.

  Alistair Burt: No. All export applications for Israel are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The end use of the arms that are the subject of the licence application is a relevant fact in that assessment, but it is not the only factor. The Government's answer was intended to emphasise that Government policy on Israel is determined by a case-by-case assessment against the criteria, not by the final destination of end use alone. Critical factors in that assessment include the nature of the equipment and its stated end use.

  For Israel, any likely deployment of arms within the OPTs by Israel is, of course, a significant factor in our case-by-case assessment of export licence applications, but the determining factor in whether a licence application is granted or refused remains whether the application breaches our export licensing criteria, and that was always the case.

  Q166  Richard Burden: Moving on to Saudi Arabia, you will probably be aware that quite a lot of concern was expressed in a number of quarters about the attack by the Saudi armed forces on northern Yemen in autumn 2009, and about the possibility that UK-supplied equipment could have been used in that attack. There have been a number of allegations that the military action was itself illegal. Against that background, could you give some indication of what the UK Government take into account and what risk assessments they make when determining whether to provide licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia?

  Alistair Burt: The fundamental importance and robustness of the criteria remain the guide. The policy on arms exports to Saudi Arabia remains to assess all licence applications on a case-by-case basis, and it is inherent in the process of assessing all our export licence applications that past behaviour is factored into judgments about whether to issue a licence. The Government will not issue an export licence when to do so would be inconsistent with the criteria.

  We do believe that Saudi Arabia had a legitimate right to respond proportionately to incursions into its territory resulting from the conflict between the Houthi rebels and the Government of Yemen. The Government followed the situation closely at the time and, after consulting a number of information sources, concluded that the Saudi response and the use of British-supplied military equipment was not inconsistent with the export licensing criteria. So, the short answer to your question is that we use the same criteria as we do for everyone else, which take into account past behaviour in considering any new licences.

  Q167  Richard Burden: Right. I'm not entirely sure what you're saying. If I may gently suggest it, there has been a slightly circular logic in your answers on both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which appear to say that at each stage you make an assessment based on past behaviour but then you don't make an assessment of that past behaviour. Is that what you're saying in relation to Saudi Arabia? Are you saying, for instance, that when the licence for Typhoon combat aircraft was being considered, the attack in relation to Yemen was considered to be not contrary to the UK's criteria, and therefore it was fine to go ahead with the licence? Or did you look at the attack and say, "It probably was contrary to the UK's criteria but we don't think that it would do the same again"? Or did you say, "We think that it was contrary to the UK's criteria and we are not sure whether it will do it again, but we will consider it if it does it again"?

  Alistair Burt: My understanding is that we took a view on the application, based on all the information at the time, that the threshold for refusal—say, under criteria 2, 4 and 6 of the consolidated criteria—had not been met.

  Q168  Richard Burden: Clearly, that was the case because the licence went ahead. Did you take the view—it might be a reasonable view to take; I make no comment on that—that the Saudi Arabians' actions in the autumn of 2009 were not in contravention of the criteria, or did you think that they might have been, but you still felt that it was acceptable to go ahead with the new licence?

  Alistair Burt: It was the former. It was that the activity was not in contravention, or inconsistent with the licensing criteria.

  Q169  Richard Burden: Okay. Had it been in contravention, that probably would have affected the licence?  

  Alistair Burt: Yes. Absolutely right.

  Q170  Richard Burden: You would take the same view about Israel?

  Alistair Burt: Yes.

  Q171  Richard Burden: So, if Saudi Arabia had done something that was in contravention, it would affect a future licence application, but in Israel, it might.

  Alistair Burt: No, it would. Exactly the same rules are applied. The criteria are robust enough to give a guide on new applications but they also allow for past behaviour to be taken into account. Clearly, where there have been breaches in the criteria, that is a material factor in taking into account a new application or a renewal of a licence, so it is entirely consistent and exactly the same.

  Richard Burden: So, we very much look forward to receiving from you the details of the investigations that have been undertaken.

  Chair: In the few minutes remaining, we should like to cover Sri Lanka, Georgia and China. Katy Clark, you are going to deal with Sri Lanka and Georgia.

  Q172  Katy Clark: You will be aware that the previous Committee was very critical of the fact that the arms exported during the ceasefire period in Sri Lanka were subsequently used in the civil war. What is the current Government's policy on exporting arms to Sri Lanka?

  Alistair Burt: If I may say, it is exactly the same as I have set out. It is a case-by-case consideration based on the criteria in which previous behaviour has to be taken into account. The Committee will be aware that immediately following the conflict in Sri Lanka, all the extant applications to Sri Lanka were reviewed in the light of the policy and eight extant licences were therefore revoked. It remains exactly the same as the approach that I have set out—a case-by-case consideration based on the criteria.

  Q173  Katy Clark: So, are we exporting arms?

  Alistair Burt: We are only approving licences that fall within the criteria. In 2009, the UK issued six licences, refused 17 and revoked eight. In the first three quarters of 2010, we have issued 13 single individual export licences, and all the goods are intended for humanitarian, safety, commercial or civil end use.

  Q174  Katy Clark: So, you are saying that we are not exporting any arms that could potentially be used in conflict?

  Alistair Burt: Correct.

  Q175  Katy Clark: Shall I move briefly on to Georgia? I know that a number of Members have to leave, so I will be brief. In a previous report, the Government referred to lessons learned from Georgia. Will you outline what that meant and what lessons were learned?

  Alistair Burt: Yes, straightforwardly. It is inherent in the process of assessing all export licence applications that past behaviour is factored into judgments about whether or not to issue a licence. Licensing decisions for Georgia take into account our analysis of Georgia's actions during the 2008 conflict. More than two years on, we note that security on the ground has improved and that the affected areas are more stable. We don't think it likely that there will be a return to large-scale conflict in the near future. Accordingly—again, we go back to the criterion that it will be assessed on a case-by-case basis—past behaviour will be taken into account, and again, as the Committee will know, six extant licences for Georgia were revoked in the past.

  Q176  Katy Clark: So what were the lessons learned?

  Alistair Burt: The lessons learned, again, are whether the processes to discern whether or not there were breaches to the criteria work. Otherwise, the licences would not be revoked. But in addition to being robust in relation to the past use of equipment that was granted under the licensing, you also look at a change in conditions on the ground and so on. I think that, in terms of the lessons learned, the determination is to continually make sure that you have enough information available, so that the application of the criteria will be accurate in all particular cases, but that the processes are robust and must continue to be kept robust.

  Q177  Katy Clark: So you are saying that the lesson learned was that the policy was correct all along—is that what you're saying? What has changed?

  Alistair Burt: As far as I'm aware, I don't think anything's changed in the approach or the process. The results of an investigation to show that licences should be revoked don't, of course, necessarily imply that the conditions were apparent at the time the licence was granted, which would have meant that an application was granted wrongly. Circumstances arise after an application has been granted where the criteria have been perfectly properly fulfilled, but the use of equipment granted under a licence can mean that, when you look back, you see clearly that the criteria have been breached. But that doesn't indicate that a mistake was made in the first place. I think that our review of that showed that that was the case. It is not to take the view that revocation of extant licences necessarily meant that an error was made in the first place. In all these cases, it seems to me that, on the care that's taken in the consideration of the initial licence application, the examination of what happens on the ground, and then the consideration of whether or not the behaviour displayed should affect either the continuation of a licence or the granting of a new application, that procedure has to be very robust and very clear.

  Chair: Thank you. Last but by no means least, we have John Glen on China.

  Q178  John Glen: Thank you, Sir John. Minister, we are concerned to understand the Government's position on maintaining the arms embargo to China. Obviously, the EU and, formerly, the EC have had that embargo in place for the past 21 years, but last month Baroness Ashton circulated a paper that described the ongoing embargo as "a major impediment" to the improvement of relations between the EU and China. Will you please describe the Government's position on this, and set out what discussions, if any, have taken place with the British Government regarding the lifting of this embargo?

  Alistair Burt: First, the position of the British Government is that they fully support the embargo, which is intended to continue. I think that, where the emphasis might have been different in the EU statement in relation to the impediment was that, if it is an impediment to progress, it is for the Chinese to resolve that, because the embargo is related to human and civil rights considerations, which remain of concern to us, and the importance of which we will continue to uphold. We have absolutely no sense at the moment that we are ready to change this. We have no processes in place to lift this embargo, and my understanding is that we have not been approached to do that. Of course, in the ideal world, the embargo would go because China had changed. If that were the case, everyone in this room would welcome it, but until that happy time occurs, the embargo could and should remain in place.

  Q179  John Glen: Nevertheless, there's a big difference between the position of the British Government and that of, say, France and Spain, which take a different view. How would you account for the difference of view?

  Alistair Burt: I am, happily, not answerable for France or Spain. We maintain our own position on this. Frankly, it is one to be defended very robustly. That's our position.

  Chair: Minister, thank you very much for your evidence. Thank you Mr Hall and Mr Vincent for coming as well. Minister, we will be glad to have any of the written follow-up that we've requested. We may have one or two additional questions to put to you following your evidence. Thank you very much for coming in front of the Committee today.

  Alistair Burt: Thank you very much indeed, Sir John.




1   See Ev 41 Back

2   See Ev 41-Ev 42 Back


 
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