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Britain's Chemical Bazaar: The UK Sells the Components of Chemical Weapons to Some of the Worst Regimes in the World

9 June 2002

On August 20 1998 American missiles blew the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant on the outskirts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum to bits. The Clinton administration claimed the factory was making VX nerve gas - a lethal chemical weapon banned under international law.

Britain, in the form of Labour's then defense secretary George Robertson, supported the strikes, claiming there was 'compelling evidence' that the factory was producing chemical weapons.

Yet a Sunday Herald investigation has revealed that Britain is now selling chemicals to Sudan - and others among the most dangerous regimes on earth - which give them the capability to make weapons of mass destruction.

Among the countries to which Britain is selling chemical warfare technology is Iran - a regime labeled as part of the 'axis of evil' by President Bush.

Others include Libya - long seen by the west as a state sponsor of international terrorism; Israel - which is involved in one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent times; and Taiwan - a nation which has been on the brink of war with China for decades.

The sale of these chemicals is strictly controlled by the international chemical weapons convention, to which Britain is a signatory, and any sale to nations that may use them as a weapon of war is illegal. Libya, Israel and Taiwan are not signatories to the convention. Nor are Thailand and Syria, yet Britain sells them the technology.

Another customer is Jordan. Like Sudan, Jordan has signed the convention but not ratified it, making the treaty effectively meaningless for both governments. The other nations to which the UK deals chemicals are Cyprus, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda and Yemen.

The products that Britain is selling to these nations are known as toxic chemical precursors (TCPs), a variety of chemicals which when combined with other compounds create weapons such as sarin - the nerve agent used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo cult's attacks on the Tokyo subway which killed 12 people - and mustard gas. These TCPs are known to chemists as dual-use chemicals. This means they can be used in harmless industries like agriculture or turned into weapons of mass destruction when mixed with other chemicals.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which controls strategic exports, including all forms of armaments and components of chemical weapons, admitted that Britain was selling TCPs to 26 countries. It also admitted that there was no way they could be sure that the chemicals would not be used to manufacture weapons once they arrived at their destination.

Holland considers the sale of TCPs to countries like Sudan so dangerous that it has banned the trade in dual-use chemicals for both civilian and military application. Sudan has tried to buy TCPs from Dutch companies for use in fertilizer, but the Dutch ministry of economic affairs outlawed the transactions, saying it had 'indications that [the chemicals] might be used for other ends', including the manufacture of nerve gas.

A DTI spokesman said the chemicals were sold overseas 'under the belief' that they would be used 'benignly' for agricultural purposes or for use in detergents. 'If there are concerns about the end use of such chemicals we will closely look at export applications under the consolidated EU national arms export licensing criteria,' a spokesman said.

He added that the risk of recipient countries diverting TCPs into chemical weapons was closely assessed. The DTI said the main assurance it relied upon to trust foreign governments that they would not use TCPs bought from Britain for chemical weapons programs was 'an end user undertaking' -- amounting to a promise that the chemicals would be used for non-military means.

'We aim to minimize risk,' the DTI spokesman added, 'but obviously it is very difficult to say what happens to these things once they get to their final destination. It is impossible to clamp down 100%. It is impossible to know what happens to them in the stages that come after they leave Britain.'

Labour MP Ann Clywd, who sits on the commons international development select committee, the backbench human rights committee and the quadripartite committee on arms exports, said she will now press the Prime Minister in parliament to explain the government's policy on sales of chemical weapon technology to 'dubious regimes'.

'If chemicals are being sold to such regimes, questions need to be asked,' she said. 'The DTI's claims that it monitors such exports do not stand up to scrutiny. It is a myth that this takes place. Frankly, we have no idea what happens with these chemicals when they get to their final destination.

'If we are going to sell these things we have to be 100% sure what happens to them when they are sold. If we can't be sure, we shouldn't sell them.'

Clywd said the revelations about TCP sales meant that parliament should be given the power of scrutiny over arms exports. Members of the quadripartite committee on arms exports have recommended that MPs be allowed to scrutinize such sales, but the government has refused to grant these powers in the arms export bill now going through parliament.

'Without prior scrutiny there is no accountability,' she said. 'What we have now is a system operating on a very confused and skewed morality. The US gives elected representatives the power of scrutiny and Britain should move immediately in that direction.

'We don't know if we are aiding and abetting supposedly dodgy regimes in the development of weapons of mass destruction. At the moment that suspicion hangs over these sales. There are a lot of anomalies in our foreign policy and I, like many members of the public, am confused over what our government is doing.'

Professor Julian Perry Robinson, a chemist at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, said TCPs were the main constituent of chemical weapons. Robinson, who helped draft the chemical weapons convention and who is a member of its UK National Authority Advisory Committee, said: 'These findings ought to worry people, especially given the rather weak assurances from the DTI'.

Robinson explained that one TCP, thiodiglycol, could be turned into mustard gas by adding hydrochloric acid or ordinary household drain cleaner. He described another TCP, dimethyl methylphosphonate, as 'the perfect dual-use chemical'. By itself it can be used as a flame retardant, but if mixed with other chemicals it becomes the main ingredient of sarin nerve gas.

'Once you have your hands on dimethyl methylphosphonate you are well on the way to making sarin,' he said. 'Every single chemical warfare agent can be made from toxic chemical precursors.

'We need mechanisms in place to ensure these chemicals are not misused. Currently we rely on end-user certificates from the country concerned . But it is obvious that these countries can lie. It is impossible to say whether the current safeguards work.'

Robinson backed Clywd's call for parliament's right to scrutinize such export licenses, saying: 'We need more transparency in the present system'. He said the morality of the British government was now in question, given its rhetoric against repressive regimes, its claims to be running an ethical foreign policy and its support of the US in bombing Sudan's alleged chemical weapons compound. 'The ethics are twisted,' Robinson added. 'In the end, it seems that capital counts.'

Dr Mark Phythian, principal lecturer in politics at Wolverhampton University and the author of The Politics Of British Arms Sales, said: 'Such chemicals are sold with political approval. Any government would be hard pushed to say it didn't know the consequences of such sales, although it is hard to make sense of that policy in the present climate of concerns about terrorism and war.

'It appears this is an extension of our policy on the sale of conventional weapons. That is a policy of sustaining the UK's industrial base, protecting jobs in the weapons industry and maintaining our image as a global player in arms. The government's desire to maximize trade seems to be at odds with its rhetoric about security. History would suggest that to err on the side of trade over security is a very short-sighted policy.'

Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University's school of medicine and the biochemist who carried out the forensic tests that proved Saddam Hussein had used poison gas against Kurds in northern Iraq, said: 'It is a matter of real concern that we are selling these chemicals to countries which are not signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

'These nations are looking towards Britain as a supplier because they know we have a substantial pharmaceutical industry, there is a guaranteed supply, and the goods will be cheap and of good quality.

'Many TCPs have no other purpose other than the making of chemical weapons. It has to be considered as a real possibility that a country is buying these chemicals for allegedly innocuous reasons but planning to use them for lethal purposes.'

Richard Bingley, of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said the sale of TCPs made it imperative that the end use of the chemicals be closely monitored to ensure they were not being used to create weapons of mass destruction. 'We don't even know that, if we sell these chemicals to a seemingly decent regime, they won't sell them on to a repressive and dangerous nation,' he said. 'Yet we've taken that a step further by actually selling these chemicals direct to repressive systems and nations which one day could use the chemical capabilities we gave them against Britain or our allies.'

Neil Mackay
Published in the Sunday Herald (Scotland) © 2002 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd

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