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When will UK bite the bullet on gun traffic?

July 11, 2001 · 


Published in Guardian Unlimited Reports
(July 11, 2001)

Britain is a key hub for small arms traffickers but, as the concluding part of our series shows, pressure is mounting for much tighter controls

Britain’s role as one of the world’s largest weapons exporters places a special responsibility on the government to take the lead in pressing for tough controls on trade in small arms, campaigners say. Britain is particularly well placed to take on the task, they argue, since it is now a relatively insignificant producer of small arms yet home to many dealers and traffickers.
Total arms exports account for less than 1.2% of Britain’s overseas earnings and less than 0.3% of total employment. The figure for small arms is even less significant – and will be reduced even more when Royal Ordnance, now a subsidiary of BAE Systems, closes its largest plant, in Nottingham, shortly.

Nevertheless, the government encourages the trade. It has granted export licences for small arms and ammunition to Pakistan, Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Exports to Turkey have included handgun silencers which, critics say, are for use against Kurds. Heckler and Koch, a subsidiary of Royal Ordnance, has signed a production licensing deal with Turkey allowing it to sell submachine guns to Indonesia, thus bypassing British export controls.

These licences were approved despite the government’s undertaking, in the context of an “ethical dimension to foreign policy”, to ban such exports when there was a clear risk that they would be used for internal repression.

Britain is an important base for brokers and traffickers of small arms. It is a notoriously secretive trade which, as the independently produced 2001 Small Arms Survey points out, with the end of the cold war has created a flourishing buyers’ market.

In 1994, a British-based company, Miltec, brokered small arms from Albania and Israel to Rwanda. Four years later, a private military company, Sandline, helped to organise the transfer of arms from Bulgaria to Sierra Leone, with the knowledge of some officials in the Foreign Office.

Sky Air Cargo, a British-based company, which was hired by Sandline and has been implicated in running guns to both sides of the conflict in Sierra Leone, is alleged to have shipped arms to Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Monday, the trade secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said the arms export control bill would crack down on the “dark and unacceptable side” of the arms trade. Arms brokers in Britain would in future have to inform the government of all arms deals.

Oxfam, Amnesty, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Saferworld welcome the measure as a significant step in the right direction.

However, it is far from clear how Britons who bypass national controls by organising weapons shipments from third countries will be caught by the legislation which is vague about monitoring end-user certificates and silent on the issue of overseas production licences.

The bill sets out broad human rights criteria that would cover the granting of export licences, but contains no provision for prior parliamentary approval along the lines adopted by Sweden and the US.

Non-governmental agencies want a legally-binding international convention prohibiting the transfer of arms where they pose a reasonable risk of being used to violate human rights, fuel aggression against another country, or when they are excessive to legitimate defence needs and waste resources destined for development.

The convention, they say, must also regulate arms brokers and shipping agents (“gun runners”) to prevent them bypassing controls. They are unlikely to succeed.

Watered down

Britain has lowered its sights to what it calls politically binding, rather than legally binding, agreements – in other words, appeals and resolutions, not a new UN convention. These would cover the transfer, marking, and tracing of small arms. Developing countries which agreed to destroy stockpiles of small arms would benefit from special aid and loans.

The US may insist on watering down even these proposals. It argues, rightly, that it has among the toughest national controls on arms exports. But it is firmly against the binding agreements needed if controls on the small arms trade are to be effective.

“If [the UN conference under way this week] drifts off into areas that are more properly the subject of national-level decision-making then I think there will be difficulties,” the US under secretary of state, John Bolton, said on Monday. He added that the US would reject any measures that would “constrain legal trade and legal manufacture of small arms and light weapons”.

British-based companies involved in the small arms trade include HeavyLift Volga-Dnepr, based at Stansted airport, and Air Foyle, a company linked to Victor Bout, a former KGB officer and owner of Air Cess, who has been named in the Commons for gun running to Africa.

Air Foyle has been contracted by a Gibraltar-based company, Chartered Engineering and Technical, to ship small arms to Burkina Faso, the west African state which has transported arms to rebels in Sierra Leone.

Advocates of strong restrictions on the trade insist there must be tough international controls even on legal transactions. In this trade, weapons may start out being sold legally, but they end up in illicit hands.

Special report: the arms trade

Richard Norton-Taylor
Wednesday July 11, 2001
The Guardian


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