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Arms Trade: Libya and North Africa

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011


Asked by

Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review their policy on the sale of arms and military equipment in the light of events in Libya and north Africa.

My Lords, we continue to believe that the assessment of all export licence applications on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria is the right approach. In the light of the rapidly changing events in Libya and north Africa, we acted to revoke licences where there was a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression or human rights abuses.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first appearance at Question Time. What are the Government doing to prioritise a legally binding arms trade treaty, and will they now support the enactment of my Re-Export Controls Bill, the provisions of which have been endorsed by three separate Select Committees in another place and supported throughout proceedings in your Lordships’ House? It has also been reintroduced as a Bill in another place by Mr Tony Baldry MP. Have not recent events in north Africa and the Gulf demonstrated that we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent British weapons and munitions being used to crush dissent, to attack unarmed civilians, to destabilise whole regions, and to kill and maim those who are trying to give birth to democratic institutions?

My Lords, I think the whole House shares the instinct that lies behind the noble Lord’s questions. It is absolutely imperative that we conduct our defence and security sales business on the basis of high standards and under strict controls. Those controls are in place, but we always need to make sure that we take account of new experience. As for the proposal on the re-export of arms and control of that, the difficulty is that it is always the case that once arms have passed from this country to the buying country, there is no jurisdiction for any law passed in this country. We therefore remain concerned that any such Act would remain effectively null and void. We should continue to base our approach on careful pre-licensing scrutiny of export sales.

An arms trade treaty is a priority of the Government. We are committed to agreeing a strong and comprehensive arms trade treaty. We have a unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that provides official support. We are working with key partners, such as the European Union, the United States and the co-authors of the treaty proposal—Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya.

Does the Minister agree that the real issue of concern is the underlying drive in policy? Armaments should never be another useful export unless there is some specific reason for not exporting them. Surely the culture in the unstable world in which we are living, with all the recent experience, should be that arms are an extremely dangerous export to promote, and should be exported only when there is a specific strategic purpose that can be monitored and held to account in the context of our relationship with the people who are receiving those arms. At the moment, we need to bring the emphasis in that direction, instead of the one that has prevailed.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for that question. It is important to keep a balance. Every country has a right to self-defence. We live in an imperfect world; if it were a perfect world we would have no need of defence industries, needless to say. It is clearly extremely important that sales of defence and security equipment are conducted to the highest possible standards, and that we work with recipient Governments to ensure the proper use of such equipment and services. We must also make sure that we learn from experience. We would all acknowledge that we have some things to learn from the terrible events in Libya.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the question goes slightly beyond the sale of military equipment and arms referred to in the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? Will he confirm that the sale of such items as Taser guns, tear gas and other material, which are clearly being used in north Africa and the Middle East to suppress legitimate democratic uprisings, will be banned by this Government?

I thank my noble friend but, as I said earlier, we believe that the right approach to defence goods is a case-by-case one. There are legitimate uses of many defence products and services. Some we do not market or manufacture in compliance with international restrictions, but in general the right thing to do is to follow a case-by-case approach.

My Lords, is there any harm in the Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred? It seems to me that it could do good. When the Bill was being debated here, I could not understand on what basis it was suggested that it could do any harm, if enacted.

I thank my noble and learned friend for the question. The point is not whether it could do any harm but the fact that there is real concern about whether it could do any good as it is effectively unenforceable. We do not want any distraction from the important focus on thorough pre-licensing scrutiny.

My Lords, a question at the back of many minds, which we do not much like to ask, is this: if we are going to be engaged in a no-fly zone and in enforcing it, is there any prospect that British pilots will face air defences supplied by British companies?

I thank my noble friend. This is clearly a very difficult position. The situation is evolving from day to day. It is tragic; civilians are being killed and the outcome is unclear. The right thing for Her Majesty’s Government to do is to work with the international community to try to find a way forward that protects the citizenry of Libya.