Britain sold Zimbabwe security equipment worth £2.7 million

Despite its outcry over alleged human rights violations by President Robert Mugabe’s government, Britain sold Zimbabwe security equipment valued at more than £2.7 million.

But Zimbabwe was not alone, London sold cryptographic equipment- which encrypts clear speech and text and is intended to make that impenetrable to others- to 23 of the 27 countries which it said topped human rights concerns.

The chairman of the Committee on Arms Exports Control, Sir John Stanley, said it was also embarrassing that Britain sold Syria chemicals that could have been used to make Sarin that was used in a chemical attack on Damascus on 21 August which is reported to have killed between 280 and 1 700 people.

Cryptographic equipment according to Sir Stanley can be used in civilian life to protect confidentiality, but it is also key equipment for security services.

Britain issued at least 36 licences for cryptographic equipment worth £2.7 million to Zimbabwe.

It also sold Zimbabwe components for all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection, construction vehicles with ballistic protection, devices for initiating explosives and improvised explosive device disruptors.

These were valued at about £3 million.

The biggest recipient of cryptographic equipment was Israel whose orders came to almost £8 billion. China ordered equipment worth £600 million.


Sir John Stanley contribution to the House of Commons last week:

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that he has anticipated what I will come to a little later in my remarks.

I come to our difference with the Government over one critical piece of information. Members from throughout the House were utterly appalled by the sarin attack that took place in Damascus on 21 August. Sarin is a ghastly chemical weapon. It is one of the most painful and grim ways in which anyone can die, and as we know, hundreds of men, women and children died in that attack.

However, the uncomfortable reality that we in this Parliament must face is that between 2004 and 2012, a total of seven export licences were approved by the present and previous Governments for the export to Syria of the dual-use chemicals sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride, which are precursor chemicals in the manufacture of sarin. Those seven export licences have been under detailed scrutiny by the Committees, and that scrutiny commenced well before the sarin attack to which I have referred.

The one crucial piece of information that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has so far not been willing to provide to the Committees is the names of the companies to which the Government provided export licence approval to export the precursor chemicals from the UK.

That is crucial information for the Committees, without which the Committees are unable to take either oral or written evidence from the companies concerned. In his latest letter to the Committees, dated 25 October, the Business Secretary once again advanced arguments about why he should not disclose the names of the companies to the Committees. I shall take the arguments one by one.

First, the Business Secretary said that, in deciding not to provide the names of the companies, he had done so in the framework of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, to which I reply: that Act does not circumscribe inquiries carried out by House of Commons Select Committees.
Secondly, the Business Secretary said that companies deal with his Department on the basis of confidentiality.

However, he has been willing to provide every other important piece of information that the Committees have sought. He has provided the Committees with the names of the chemicals involved; the quantities of chemicals approved; the financial value of the approved chemicals; the dates of the licence approvals; and, most significantly, the names of the concerns in Syria to which the chemicals were to be exported. On that basis, I fail to see how the names of the companies applying for the licences can be considered confidential.

Lastly, the Business Secretary said that he does not want to disclose the names of the companies because of the reputational risk that the companies would face. He also advanced the argument that there could be physical danger—imagined, in my view—to the companies’ employees. To that argument, I say that if Select Committees were to be debarred from taking evidence from witnesses on the grounds of the risk of reputational damage, that would effectively destroy most of the inquiries carried out by Select Committees. That would clearly be unacceptable.

In the Business Secretary’s latest letter to me, he has offered an alternative proposal. He said that he would be willing to give the Committees the companies’ names in confidence and on the basis that they took evidence in a closed session. However, that would defeat the central purpose of Select Committees, which is to carry out open and transparent inquiries and to make full reports to the House on the basis of the evidence received.

The Committees will of course respond to the Business Secretary’s letter. I hope that he will consider the issue further, achieve the change of policy that the Committees are seeking and disclose the names of the companies to the Committees, so that the Committees can take evidence from them.

I am glad to say that, over a substantial area of the Committees’ work, the Committees are broadly on the same ground as the Government. However, I owe it to the House to highlight two important areas where the Committees differ from the Government’s position. The first is the key area of UK arms exports and their possible use for internal repression. There is no difference between the Committees and the Government on the wording of the policy; the difference comes in its implementation.

The policy wording goes back 13 years to a written answer provided by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Mr Hain, on 26 October 2000. That wording was fully reflected in the wording provided by the Foreign Secretary to the Committees when he gave oral evidence in February 2012. The wording is:

“We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”

When asked whether that still represented the Government’s policy, the Foreign Secretary replied:

“That is still the policy. The ‘or’, as you have pointed out on other occasions, is important.”
The “or” is indeed of crucial importance. The House will see from that statement that there are effectively two tests for the policy in deciding whether an arms export application should be approved in circumstances where internal repression could arise.

The first test is what I call the “clear risk” test, which is a relatively loose test. I can hear the arguments going on around Whitehall regularly, with officials and Ministers saying, “There is a risk, but it isn’t clear, so we can approve the export.” The much more stringent test is in the second half of the sentence—after the “or”—the test of whether an export might facilitate internal repression. That is why both halves of the Foreign Secretary’s policy statement are crucial.

Our deep concern is that the Government repeatedly only refer to the relatively loose “clear risk” test, but fail to refer to the “might facilitate internal repression” test, which is much more stringent. I will provide the House with just two examples. First, paragraph 46 of Command Paper Cm 8707, the Government’s response to our latest report, states:

“The Government will not grant an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression.”

The Government’s answer is wholly silent on the second half of the policy—the “might facilitate internal repression” test.

My second illustration of precisely the same point comes from the Business Secretary’s letter to me on 11 October regarding dual-use chemical exports to Syria. He said:

“Specifically with regard to exports that might be used for internal repression, the Government continues to assess applications against Criterion 2 in full, which states that: ‘[The Government will] not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk [my emphasis] that the proposed export might be used for internal repression.'”

Once again, the key words— “or which might be used to facilitate internal repression”— were omitted.
Worse still, in that letter, the Business Secretary claimed—without any foundation—that the

Committees were over-interpreting the Foreign Secretary’s policy statement to the Committees on 7 February 2012, which I have read out. Let me put the Business Secretary’s mind at rest: the Committees have not made any interpretation of the Foreign Secretary’s statement. The wording of the statement is perfectly clear; it requires no interpretation. The Committees look to the Government to implement that policy statement not selectively, but in its entirety.

Equally, we look to Ministers, in their future public statements on arms exports and internal repression, to state the policy in its entirety, not selectively, and to use the complete wording as endorsed by the Foreign Secretary to the Committees on 7 February 2012.

I now turn to the Government’s implementation of their policy, as stated by the Foreign Secretary to the Committees. In our latest report, we specifically named a total of 32 countries of human rights concern and asked the Government whether they were satisfied that each of the existing Government-approved export licences to those countries conformed with their policy on arms exports and internal repression.

I am disappointed with and concerned about the Government’s reply to that key series of questions, because in each case they state that they are compliant with their policy, as set out in paragraph 46 of the Command Paper, from which I just quoted, which only refers to the clear risk test and ignores entirely the phrase, “or which might be used to facilitate internal repression”.

That is an unsatisfactory feature of the Government’s Command Paper response, to which I am sure that the Committees will return.

I shall now highlight just three instances where the Government’s adherence to their own stated policy appears to be highly questionable: first, Sri Lanka. I read with some amusement a headline on the front page of Saturday’s Independent newspaper. Mr Sutharshan Uthayaswriyan, who is a Tamil refugee and has been since the age of seven, was reported as saying, “We believe in David Cameron. He is God!”

If I may be presumptuous and bring God down to earth for a moment, I ask the Prime Minister and his fellow Ministers to address arms exports and internal repression in Sri Lanka. I do not need to recite the appalling human rights abuses that have taken place in Sri Lanka. I strongly support the Prime Minister in his calls for an international independent inquiry.

However, against that human rights background, the House will wish to consider the British Government’s arms export licence approvals in just nine months of last year. They included 100 pistols, 130 rifles, 210 combat shotguns, 600 assault rifles, unknown quantities of small arms ammunition and unknown quantities of machine guns. I hope that the Minister will not say that these were all for counter-piracy, because I do not find that a credible answer, particularly when combined with the complete list of the 49 extant arms export approved licences to Sri Lanka that we detailed in our report.

I return to the Committees’ original question. How can the Government’s approval of these arms export licences to Sri Lanka be compatible with their arms exports and internal repression policy, as stated to the Committees by the Foreign Secretary?

I do not need to recite the serious human rights abuses that took place in Bahrain in the wake of the Arab spring. They have been well documented and were all too observable by any and all of us on television, where we saw police vehicles being driven towards and into those demonstrating peacefully in Bahrain.

Against that same human rights background, it is extraordinary that the Government’s existing approved arms export licences to Bahrain include licences for small arms ammunition, pistols, gun silencers, assault rifles and machine guns, to cite just a few of 105 extant Government-approved arms export licences to Bahrain.

The third area is a group of arms exports by category. The category is cryptographic equipment, which encrypts clear speech and text and is intended to make that impenetrable to others. It is, of course, dual-use equipment —I entirely accept and understand that—with a perfectly legitimate civil use to protect confidentiality, but it is also key equipment for security services, not least in countries noted for internal repression and human rights violations.

The Committees’ report has exposed the fact that, of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 27 countries of top human rights concern, as detailed in the FCO’s latest human rights report, no less than 23 of them have received UK Government approval for licences for the export of cryptographic equipment, cryptographic technology, cryptographic software and cryptographic components. Those countries include Belarus, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka—once again—and Zimbabwe.

The two biggest recipients of approval for cryptographic exports among those 27 countries of top human rights concern are of most concern. First, China has the largest number of extant cryptographic licences of any country among the 27: a total of nearly 200, with a value of £600 million. China is a one-party state, where there is no clear boundary between the Communist party and the private sector. It would seem highly likely that there is a real risk that some cryptographic exports that may be going into the private sector initially end up being utilised by security services in China.

The second largest recipient of approval for cryptographic exports, with more than 100 extant cryptographic licences, but with far and away the largest value, is Israel. The value of those cryptographic export licences is staggering, at nearly £8 billion. Hon. Members might think that I have misspoken, but I repeat: £8 billion. Again, it seems highly likely that some of that massive cryptographic export to Israel will be used, sooner or later, to the advantage of the Israeli security services in operations against Palestinians. For all those reasons, the Committees’ scrutiny of the Government’s extant licences, particularly in countries where there is significant internal repression, will continue intensively.

A second area where we have a significant policy difference with the Government is in relation to authoritarian regimes. The policy followed by the present Government, and indeed by the previous Government, could be described most charitably as benign. Others might describe it as reckless and possibly even irresponsible.

The policy that the two successive Governments have followed is one of broadly supporting most types of exports to authoritarian regimes, providing that the regime appeared stable and there was no blood on the streets. Hence the flow of British arms export approvals from the present Government and the previous Government to Gaddafi’s Libya, Mubarak’s Egypt and to Assad’s Syria—I have previously referred to the dual-use chemical exports.

In fairness to both Governments, they recognised that there was something of a safety net if their policy approvals turned out badly. They recognised that they could revoke licences after they had been granted. The previous Government, for example, revoked a handful of licences to Israel after the last major Israeli attack on Gaza.

The present Government have now revoked—this is a massive number—more than 200 licences to north African and middle eastern countries following the Arab spring and to Argentina following the fairly bellicose statements by the Argentine leadership towards the Falklands. Those revocations are detailed in annex 12 of our report.

With much trumpeting, the present Government have introduced a further safety net if things turn nasty in authoritarian regimes—namely, the power to suspend licence applications, in addition to the power to revoke them. The problem with both revocation and suspension is that they are of only limited practical effect for the simple reason that, once military and dual-use exports have been exported out of the UK, there is effectively no means to stop their use. As I have said previously, the bullets have bolted.

I hope that the Minister will not trot out the familiar ministerial response that there is no evidence that British arms exports are being used for internal repression. In case my right hon. Friend is tempted to do that, I say to him that that line simply does not stand scrutiny for anyone who takes the trouble to look at the approved arms exports to the countries with the worst human rights records, as set out in annex 13 of our report.

Annex 13 shows at a glance that the overwhelming majority of exports will not be visible once they have been exported from this country. Those exports are made up of components, software, technology, communications equipment, cryptographic equipment, ammunition, small arms, automatic weapons and sniper rifles, which will not be identifiable as having come from the UK once they have left our shores, even assuming—it is most unlikely—that we have anyone on the ground to see what those items actually are. We are dealing with exports that, by and large, are invisible once they have left this country.

The crux of the Government’s policy decision and the Committees’ scrutiny is the nature of the original decision to grant the export licence. The Government have a simple choice: do they follow a relatively risky policy that has been the policy hitherto, or do they adopt a more cautious policy when approving export licences to authoritarian regimes?

For the Committees, the fact that the present Government have now had to revoke more than 200 arms export licences to countries predominantly in the middle east and north Africa is the clearest possible indication of the extent to which both this Government and the previous Government misjudged the risks that they were running in approving those arms exports in the first place.

I stress very clearly that the Committees do not criticise the Government for being unable to predict the future. None of us can reliably predict the future, and it is precisely because neither the Government nor any of us can do so that we believe that the more cautious policy should be adopted.

That is why, for two years in succession, the report of our four Committees unanimously urges the Government to adopt a more cautious policy on arms exports to authoritarian regimes, particularly on those items that may be used for internal repression.

I am only too aware that I could have raised a great many other issues, but I have tried to focus on what I consider to be the two most important policy areas before the Committees and, indeed, before the Government. I look forward to hearing the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members to this debate.



No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *