Defending the arms trade can be an uphill struggle at the best of times.
Defending the sale of military equipment to Libya at a time when Muammar Gaddafi is ordering his fighter pilots to shoot at Libyan people would be more like scaling Everest. On rollerskates.
Yet that is what British Prime Minister David Cameron has been asked to do this week.
The facts are there for all to see, whether in official PDF format, spreadsheet form or a media summary.
Yes, Britain has sold rubber bullets, tear gas, military vehicles, wall and door breaching missile launchers and infrared and thermal imaging equipment to Libya. And that was just in the third quarter of last year.
Britain is certainly not alone in supplying Libya with military gear; Gaddafi doesn’t seem too fussy about where he shops. The European Union alone sold him defence equipment worth some 344 million euros in 2009. Russia is the biggest arms exporter to Libya and has been since Soviet times.
The United States provides less to the country because of particular sensibilities, notably the Lockerbie bombing, and the fact that Libya was on Washington’s state sponsor of terrorism list until 2006. Nevertheless the US still has plenty of customers in the region; Maryland-based Lockheed Martin is not the biggest defence equipment seller in the world for nothing.
But David Cameron has been singled out because of his decision to take a delegation of UK defence industry bosses on a regional tour of the Middle East at a time when defence equipment is being used for everything but ‘defence’ in the region.
Last week, Bahraini troops fired rubber bullets at sleeping protesters, killing at least four. The following day they resorted to live rounds.
This weekend, just a short flight from Bahrain, in Abu Dhabi, the UK defence industry delegates will join their international counterparts for the IDEX international arms fair. There they will peddle their goods to Middle East buyers whose pockets may currently have a little extra bulge thanks to agreeably high oil prices.
Cameron’s tour to the region, and the choice of roadies he has taken with him, has been heavily criticised back in Britain, both by his usual critics and in newspapers that are traditionally more favourable to him.
Congratulating Arab peoples for overthrowing their regimes while in the same breath selling weapons to Arab regimes could be construed as, at worst, hypocritical and, at best, a massive lack of judgement.
And he is on the defensive.
Speaking in Kuwait earlier this week on the 20th anniversary of the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s army, Cameron said:
“The idea that we should expect small and democratic countries like Kuwait to be able to manufacture all their means of defence seems to me completely at odds with reality.”
He went on to say that when Britain sells arms “we do so with probably the tightest set of export licenses and rules almost anywhere in the world. It is obviously a dificult process to get right on every occasion…a properly regulated trade in defence is not something we should be ashamed of.”
While Cameron may have a point when he says democracies should have the right to defend themselves, one could argue that it’s the wrong point. We are not talking about Kuwait.
We are talking about Libya or, more precisely, we are talking about Gaddafi.
Gaddafi was considered by the West one of the principle supporters and financiers of international terrorism during the 70s, 80s and 90s. He negotiated a return from the diplomatic wilderness by ending Libya’s program to develop weapons of mass destruction in 2003. When an arms embargo was lifted soon afterwards, the defence industry found itself a new and very keen customer with a fistful of petrol dollars. It was as if promising NOT to produce WMD transformed him overnight into a safe pair of hands and suddenly European leaders, the Berlusconis and the Blairs, were queuing up to shake his hand.
But the reports of human rights abuses kept on coming.
David Cameron is not at fault for this situation, he simply put himself in the media firing line with his Gulf tour. The fault lies with a long list of Western and Arab governments going back decades. But Cameron is in a position now where he can do something about it other than defending what is clearly a dangerously ineffective legal arms trade system.
Firstly he should apply the regulations that he hails as the “world’s tightest.”
The British government permits or refuses arms export licenses according to the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria which states that Britain will “not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression” and “exercise special caution and vigilance in issuing licences, on a case-by-case basis and taking account of the nature of the equipment , to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the UN, the Council of Europe or by the EU.”
But Britain will only act if all other nations act at the same time. If it decides, for example, to block the sale of Kalashnikovs to Libya, some other country like Romania will step in and take the money instead.
The UN does have an Arms Trade Treaty in the pipelines and a preparatory committee begins on Monday February 28.
It won’t satisfy groups calling for an abolition of the arms trade but it may spare politicians’ blushes and innocent lives.
By Mark Davis