This post originates from a response to letters I received from constituents asking me to speak out about the UK government granting arms export licences to Israel, following the publication of a report by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), War on Want and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee. I will address these issues, but I have also widened the scope of this post to consider the application of ethical foreign policy-making principles to all UK arms export licensing decisions. I am concerned they do not respect international standards for human rights and democracy.

I have read the CAAT report very carefully, which led on to me reading many other associated relevant documents to get a better understanding of the regulatory framework and other sources of evidence about arms export licences to certain countries. This included the full text of the original and 2014 revised Consolidated EU and National criteria for granting arms export licences;  the EU Council Common Position Criteria which prompts these; the most recent annual report from the Foreign Office on Human Rights and Democracy; the sub-report on Israel as a Country of Concern listed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) report; the most recent annual report from the cross-party House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC); the most recent annual report from the UK government on arms export licences; and a 2012 report by the International Committee of Red Cross on Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian territories.

As I am sure most MPs do, I share my constituents’ concerns for the safety of the people living in countries with clear evidence of human rights violations against their own people.

I am very well aware of the nature and impact of the attacks on Gaza last year. Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband spoke out very clearly against them, I spoke at the large demonstration and march in Bristol during the attacks and am on record as condemning the attacks in many responses to people while I was a parliamentary candidate and since becoming an MP.

There were 12 UK arms export licences to Israel which were suspended during the violence and for many months afterwards. However, the UK government, when it announced last August that they would continue to suspend granting new licences for exports to Israel and the Occupied Territories, also announced significant exceptions. This meant that although some licences were suspended or not allowed, others were.

As of 16 July 2015 the UK government announced that all these suspensions were now lifted. This is despite the fact the FCO continues to list Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a ‘country of concern’ for human rights. It is important to note that while the majority of the matters listed as concerns were committed by the Israeli authorities, some were committed by Palestinian authorities. I do not consider these to be remotely equal or equivalent – I am fully aware of the imbalances of power and resources between the Palestinian people and the Israeli government. I simply think it is important to be aware that there are also risks for Palestinians, particularly women and girls, from their own authorities. This also needs to be addressed.

In the months that followed the bombardment the UK approved further arms export licences to Israel. There are eight criteria listed for consideration in the Consolidated EU and National Arms Licensing Criteria document. It appears to me that four have very clear implications for any licences to Israel, depending on the nature of the goods under application. I contend that in relation to Israel and the Occupied Territories, criteria relating to violations of international law, human rights, threats or use of violence for occupation and/or internal repression (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the 8) are all directly relevant.

Whilst doing this analysis it also became very clear to me that there is evidence from parliamentary scrutiny committees and from a government department of similar contradictions applying to other countries – countries with well documented human rights concerns to which we are granting arms export licences.

On 6 March 2015, the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) published their most recent annual report. In it they state: ‘The Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticizing their lack of human rights at the same time.’  CAEC comprises members of parliament from all parties, who are members of one of the four relevant select committees: Business, Innovation and Skills; Defence; Foreign Affairs; International Development.

CAEC noted in the 2015 report that the UK is granting export licences to 12 of the 27 FCO ‘countries of concern’: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the OPT, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Uzbekistan and the Yemen.  CAEC also noted in the same report licences were also granted to seven further countries about which they have concerns in relation to granting arms export licences: Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Hong Kong, Qatar, Tunisia and the Ukraine. It is important that in our discussions and campaigning we are clearly opposed to exporting arms to any countries which violate human rights. I think it is also important that we note that some of the countries listed above are also countries from which thousands of refugees are fleeing. I do not know enough to say definitively if there is a connection between our arms export licences and the exact reasons why refugees are leaving. I am simply noting this correlation.

I still believe in the potential for long-term global peace and security and, while this may seem wildly optimistic, I believe that politicians from all parties and many countries owe it to the people we represent and to the world to do everything we can to work for this.

I am pleased to see that my Labour MP colleague Ann Clwyd has secured a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 17 September 2015 (this week as I write) on the UK government’s arms export licences practice.  I regret that my treatment schedule will keep me from being there in person. I hope that publishing this post and encouraging my colleagues to attend will be a helpful contribution.

I believe the current government’s application of the system of regulating arms export licences is matter of grave concern with serious implications for our humanitarian and other obligations. I am determined to use my role as an MP to do what I can to change this. I will start with the following actions:

  1. This month (September 2015) I will write to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (the government department responsible for granting or refusing these licences) to ask on what grounds the UK government continues to sign off arms export licences for countries of concern, as identified by CAEC and FCO. In particular, I will, in response to my constituents’ letters, also ask for specific clarification of why they do not agree that criteria 1-4 are likely to be breached by granting arms export licences to Israel in the current climate and what rationale they have for this.
  2. I will ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to describe how UK government ensures that the eight criteria are consistently, thoroughly and appropriately applied in all export licences. I will give the specific examples relating to the evidence I have found in the CAEC report and elsewhere.
  3. During September and October, I will read more of the evidence heard by CAEC on the human rights violations in the 18 countries of concern to CAEC and also the impact of granting arms export licences to those countries. I will also read all the other FCO reports on ‘countries of concern’, 27 in total.
  4. If the answers from the Secretary of State do not prove satisfactory I will use further appropriate opportunities to ask these questions in parliamentary public debates and other public settings to help to highlight the government’s actions and the impact.
  5. I will also use other opportunities to speak out about the government’s interpretation of arms export license legislation and the impact in specific countries. I will do this on my own blog (I will publish a version of this letter on my website during September) and in media coverage of armed conflict and the UK’s role in promoting global peace.

If all the criteria were consistently applied to all countries, including but not confined to Israel but also the other 18 countries listed by CAEC (and probably others as well), this could constitute a de facto ban on exporting arms to those countries, based on proper and consistent application of our own regulatory systems and using sound evidence. This is essential for ethical foreign policy making.

Published: 18 February 2016

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