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More on Britain's "ethical " arms sales

THE GUARDIAN, Thursday September 9, 1999

Stop selling UK arms to the cruellest regimes on earth

False promises made by Jakarta belie the crassness of Britain's position

Hugo Young

Alan Clark's most enduring contribution to politics, apart from his ripping diaries, was as the only serving minister to express the truth about the arms industry. His conduct over selling the tools of war to Iraq in the late 1980s personified it. As the Scott Inquiry discovered, Clark's words and deeds were the acme of evasion, duplicity, cynicism and outraged innocence in the service of the national interest. In the hour of British complicity in the hideous events in East Timor, this unvarnished realism might be the epitaph he best deserves.

As a minister in two departments, Clark thought all arms sales were prima facie desirable. In the case of Iraq, he pressed for restrictive guidelines to be relaxed, and tipped the wink to Matrix-Churchill munitions men. He taught them how to frame their licence applications for dual-use equipment to conceal its military dimension. Being economical with the actualité, he said, was the first duty of anyone, including a minister, who operated in this world.

Behind these opinions, which embarrassed his colleagues and partly caused the Scott Inquiry to be set up, lay a brutal attitude to power and money. Every country should have any arms it could pay for. Britain was a massive arms-maker, the second biggest global exporter. She could be proud of the industrial and imperial history that produced this happy outcome. The job of a British munitions worker was worth more than the life of any East Timor dissident trying to get away from Indonesia.

The Clark philosophy was, in reality, the British philosophy, uncluttered by paper rules and regulations which try to make the official version seem more respectable. The premise is that this is a rough old world, in which Britain must defend the jewel among her exports. The presumption is that every arms sale is good, unless proved otherwise. The pre-condition is a high degree of secrecy, in the name of commercial and diplomatic confidence. The result is Britain's chronic entanglement, from time to time highly visible, with some of the most corrupt and cruel regimes in the world.

When Labour came in, it had a chance to deconstruct this philosophy, which a fair number of its supporters detest. But there was never a chance that this would happen. No Labour leader in recorded time has promised to wind down the arms industry, and Mr Blair was not going to be the first to try. Instead there has been reform at the edges. Transparency is a little wider. The rules now debar arms from being sold to "regimes that might use them for internal repression". The relationship to human-rights threats is rather more explicit. Robin Cook played a positive part in constructing a voluntary code to deter EU countries from outbidding each other in the oppressions they were prepared to overlook to make a quick buck.

But the Indonesian case exposes a large hole in Labour's new foreign policy; the other half of what was being asserted in Kosovo. British intervention, a la Kosovo, will not happen: too far away, not enough troops. The Blair doctrine of crusading humanitarianism has practical limits. On the other hand, how can this doctrine possibly coexist with the interventions that have already taken place, over many years, on the side of Jakarta, to help expand Indonesian power in general and the oppression of East Timor in particular?

These turn out to have had horrendous effects. British Hawk aircraft were sold, and used for counter-insurgency purposes in East Timor. The precious distinction between oppressive and non-oppressive weaponry was, in practice, fictitious hair-splitting, of which Alan Clark would have been proud. The promises made by Jakarta that "British defence equipment will not be used against civilians" were cited by sales-hungry politicians (A Goodlad, minister of state, 16 Nov 1994) whose gullibility was exceeded only by their cynicism. British water-cannon, which can have no other use than crowd-control, were sold in circumstances that came to embarrass even a Tory government, when this police weaponry arrived in the hands of a state apparatus that has no regard for the rights of its opponents.

The past cannot be undone, and the strategic economy of the British arms industry will not be dismantled. Nor is there a decisive reason why it should be, so long as the public accedes to the dirty world in which we live, wants Britain to be part of it, and desires to keep most of the jobs it brings here. But current events cry out for some selectivity and sacrifice, from a government that uses as many high-flown words about international morality as Mr Blair and Mr Cook have done.

Jakarta has shown itself to be a completely unreliable upholder of basic democratic decencies. Plainly, there can be no question of licensing the remaining Hawk aircraft for sale there. If that costs Britain money, so be it. There should also be an absolute ban on the sale of water cannon, small arms, riot control equipment, and armoured personnel vehicles, since they are equally usable, and used, for internal policing as external defence. Likewise, British military training, having conclusively failed to inculcate the values of Sandhurst into the sinister Indonesian military elite, should be withdrawn.

More widely, the presumptions should change. With countries like Indonesia, where there is no confidence in democratic liberty, arms sales should be the exception not the rule, and be licensed only when a legitimate defence case has been made. At present the onus is the other way. The selling government, moreover, should be far more concerned to monitor end-use than Britain has ever been prepared to be: it was left to journalists and other targets to prove the Hawks' presence over East Timor. Once the sales are made, Whitehall loses interest in what happens next.

These are modest suggestions, rendered even more so by the small part Indonesia actually plays in the total pattern of British exports. In a scholarly paper for Saferworld, Malcolm Chalmers showed that Indonesia accounted for 0.3% of British exports, no more than 20% of which, over the decade, were defence exports. The involvement has become fatally conspicuous, and the political damage done by it echoes the long-term folly of selling tanks to the Shah of Iran and warships to the Argentine junta. It puts us on the wrong side of an international scandal condemned by the UN ever since Indonesia seized East Timor in 1975. But the economic stake at issue could, in the scheme of things, hardly be more trivial.

To address it, however, is to challenge the philosophy that made GEC-Marconi rich, and Alan Clark famous for his candour. Britain is asked a very particular question, far from the hot air of grand interventionism. The new moralists must not be allowed to bury it in evasive complications.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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