Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Is Britain’s policy on arms control effective or effectively pointless?

Sophie Stewart

Guardian: Saudi Arabian troops arrive in Bahrain to prop up the monarchy against widening demonstrations. Photograph: Ammar Rasool/APAimages/Rex Features.
In January 2012 John Lunn produced a parliamentary note on UK arms export control policy to summarise the British position and its evolution since the arms-to Iraq review in 1997. The events of the Arab spring and the controversy over the use of British arms by repressive regions against protestors have undoubtedly renewed focus on our arms control position. In February 2011 arms licenses were revoked from Bahrain and Libya due to concerns about the use of such weapons to suppress protests there. The review of arms exports in 2011 may have been signalled by the increased scrutiny that Arab Spring brought to such weapon sales but efforts to clarify and create a coherent arms control policy are not new, nor exclusive to Britain. One of the challenges is to balance the economic significance of the arms industry, which in the UK as in the US is one of our chief exports, with a moral or ethical commitment to try and prevent the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, attacks on civilians or weaponising regimes and regions where porous borders, armed militias and terrorist organisations seek refuge. 
From the headline dominating issue of Iran’s nuclear capability to the attempts to control access to everything from cluster munitions and weapons of mass destruction, the efforts on the part of the international community to try and control and limit the availability of destructive technology has met with limited success. Rather than consider the efforts to limit, for example, the spread of nuclear power or prevent non-state actors gaining access to chemical weapons independently from each other, by taking all such enterprises as merely off-shoots of an overarching strategy, that said strategy can be evaluated and judged based on results at a global level.  Britain has specific policies relating to the sale of ‘controlled’ items. However, these have come under increasing scrutiny of late due to the use of UK arms in the Middle East and since 2011 efforts have been made to further strengthen the limits on the sales of weapons to countries where they may be used to crush internal opposition. 
Bahrain has been one such country where arms licences were revoked. In February 2012 the British Government revoked dozens of arms licences for Bahrain. This was taken after new advice was issued from the Foreign Office who confirmed the decision to review and then revoke arms license. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said: "As a result of the changing situation in Bahrain, we have conducted an immediate and rapid review of UK export licences…The longstanding British position is clear: 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." However, there has been little evidence of progress. The situation in Bahrain has not improved with regular protestors facing intense barrages of tear gas and other anti-protest weapons by police forces in the small kingdom. The F1 Bahrain Grand Prix drew renewed attention to the on-going crackdown against civilians. Over the course of the weekend armed vehicles patrolled the streets to try and stamp out the protesters while the opposition protestors created barricades with burning tyres. Bahrain’s King Hamad-al Khalifa, in a statement over the weekend announced his “personal commitment to reform and reconciliation”. However, this statement came just after the police force had fired tear gas at thousands of protestors. William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, called again for restraint in dealing with protesters. British arms exports are obviously not responsible for the injuring and killing of protesters and yet Britain exports arms to countries all over the Middle East from Libya to Yemen and Bahrain among others where repressive regimes are willing to use such tools against their civilian population. 
Guardian: Sir John Stanley has challenged claims by William Hague (pictured) about military exports to the Middle East and North Africa. Photo: Andy Rain/EPA.
However, the example of Bahrain is also an example of just how ineffective British arms control policy is. Amnesty international and MPs have criticised the failure of the UK to appreciate and counter the extensive evidence that the UK among other governments have failed to act and stop supplying Middle Eastern regimes despite evidence that such weapons would be used to commit serious human rights violations. Amnesty International in a recent report condemns the Uk government among other for its arms policy. Declaring that “successive UK Governments have supplied arms to Libya, Bahrain and others in the region.  It transferred more than £1 million worth of small arms to Bahrain. The transfer included assault rifles, sniper rifles, semi-automatic and non-automatic firearms and shotguns.” Amnesty also claims that the UK also authorised the sale of approximately £1.5 million worth of other equipment to Bahrain in 2010, including grenade launchers, riot guns used for firing tear gas and other projectiles, or machine guns.
A map of arms sales to the Middle East by the UK would show a huge amount of money and resources flowing into the area. While the events in the Middle East have re-focused attention on the scale and ethics of the global arms trade it is only one region of a massive global industry. The challenge of the UK government is to try and balance not only the economic advantages of being a global leader in military technology with the ethics of selling to questionable regimes but also to try and affect a coherent and effective strategy. If we are to profess values of self-determination, freedom of speech and the protection of civilians then we ought not to be so blasé in the continuation of supplying tools such as tear gas, stun grenades or rubber bullets, not to mention more deadly tools, to regimes who do not hold such values. In an idea world such a policy would not only be realistic in theory but also operable in practice. In reality no such blend of economics, real-politics and ideas is possible. A real solution to this dilemma is not forthcoming and the current policy is ineffectual at best.  However, as civil wars, sectarian strife and violent protest movements continue to dominate global events it is our responsibility and in the interests of our national security to continue to try and achieve a more effective resolution.