In her speech to Labour Party conference this week, my colleague, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP made the very welcome announcement that the next Labour Government will completely reform the legal and regulatory framework governing the export of arms from the UK to foreign governments.
All over the world the place you are most likely to find “Made in Britain” is stamped on a weapon.
The UK supplies 12.8% of the world’s global arms market at a value of around £7.7 billion per annum. Around 58% of these sales are to countries in the Middle East, often to very repressive regimes. For instance kit supplied by Britain is very important to the Kingdom of Bahrain which used British weapons to put down Shi’a protests during the Arab Spring and afterwards. More recently British made bombs have pounded Yemen, contributing to a staggering humanitarian crisis.
Labour has demanded that arms sales to Saudi be suspended and steps taken to encourage a dialogue between both sides in Yemen’s civil war to end the fighting. But, we also need to think and act strategically and ensure reform of the current systems we have for regulating the UK arms trade. The Government’s export licensing process does little to impede the trade. It is supposed to take human rights, conflict and other concerns into account, but with, for example, military goods going to Israel whilst it was bombing Gaza in 2014, the licencing process clearly needs reform.
The UK has an international obligation to ensure its weapons are not used in human rights violations but arms export decisions made by Tory Ministers are entirely subjective assessments, taken without proper parliamentary scrutiny, without listening to independent, expert advice. Instead they listen far too much to lobbyists for the arms trade and repressive foreign regimes. This is a process that leads to ridiculous double standards where the Government can decide far too late that selling arms to Myanmar is wrong, but immediately increase its sales to Saudi.
A Labour Government will profoundly reform the arms trade in this country. A wholesale reform of the legal and regulatory framework fully implementing the International Arms Trade Treaty with clear rules, tests and criteria for decision-making, based on independent, expert advice and the objective assessment of evidence. A new system that will prevent the misuse or abuse of licences and adhere to the principles of transparency, true parliamentary accountability and freedom from undue influence.
When the UK sells weapons to other countries, the UK owns the consequences of their use and the suffering they cause. As Emily Thornberry MP said; we must set an entirely new standard for Britain and a shining example to the world. And if that sounds like setting our ambitions high, well you’re damn right it is and we should not apologise for that.