Arms Exports, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain

Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 October 2011

[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Arms Export Controls

20 Oct 2011 : Column 347WH

3.18 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on his typically detailed and forceful presentation of the position adopted by the Committees on Arms Export Controls. I have served on the Committees on and off for almost 15 years; I served on them as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I served on them in the previous Parliament and I am serving on them again in this Parliament. I have to say, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely assiduous in his relentless pursuit of officials and Ministers. When he issues officials in a Department with a gentle warning, they need to heed it; if they do not, they will get many more communications in the long run than if they had heeded it quickly.

I want to begin by referring to last week’s written ministerial statement by the Foreign Secretary. Tucked away in the back of it is a paragraph about how the Government can also consider how we can

“strengthen our decision making when we provide security and justice assistance overseas.”

Those issues are linked, because there are countries to which we export weaponry, where we also provide training and engage in intelligence co-operation, and give help to the civil power on such things as counter-narcotics.

It is in that context that I want to talk about two countries; and in doing so I want to raise a wider question about lack of transparency on relevant questions. Our Committee receives detailed information, some of it confidential, about arms exports. We receive detailed breakdowns of the value and general scope of the categories of weaponry, and we know which categories exports are in—general or specific. We have information about those that are refused and revoked. However, unfortunately, similar information is not available about some other areas. I could give numerous examples, but will quote just a few.

The British Government do not sell significant quantities of weaponry to Colombia. That country has had a very difficult human rights legacy: an insurgency, drug cartels, and assassinations and murders of politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists. It is thought that it is still the country with the largest number of murders of trade unionists. However, we have had—and this goes back to the Labour Government—a period of systematic co-operation on counter-narcotics with the Colombian Government and their forces. Yet successive parliamentary questions have been put to Ministers over the years, and we never receive any detail. In November 2010 such a question received the answer:

“Our counter-narcotics work in Colombia is scrupulously monitored to ensure it cannot contribute to any human rights abuses. We do not discuss the detail of this narcotics work publicly as doing so risks putting UK and Colombian lives in danger.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 551W.]

A similar answer, received in July 2010, was:

“The only military aid we provide to Colombia is for the ongoing programme of counter-narcotics assistance. It would not be appropriate to provide details about this programme, as to do so would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”—[Official Report , 12 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 446W.]

To go back to the time of the previous Government—I am criticising the general approach, not the present Government—this answer was given in December 2009:

“We do not disclose the value of our counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia. To do so would put British and Colombian lives at risk. This decision has been upheld by the parliamentary ombudsman.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2009; Vol. 498, c. 935W.]

There is a problem, and a serious question of accountability to Parliament. We are told by Ministers that the human rights situation in Colombia is not as bad as many critics say. We are told by the Colombian Government that the situation is improving, and that things are not as difficult or bad as they were. They accept that there were terrible things in the past, but they are doing their best. However, there is no transparency, and if the Government are to deal with the deep concerns that we have, they should provide more detailed information. We get information about arms exports, but not about military support or training support for counter-narcotics work in Colombia.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for the way he puts the case of Colombia. Does he accept that there is a problem, because in making their assessments, Governments tend to work on the dangerous assumption that the armed forces are a seamless whole, working under the orders of civilian Government control? They do not necessarily think that those forces will have an osmotic relationship with irregular forces, militias, drug dealers or anyone else. Supplying arms to an army somewhere like Colombia—and there are other places like it—means, in reality, providing resources that can go anywhere and be used for any kind of repression.

Mike Gapes: I accept that that is a danger. Obviously, countries vary considerably, and Ministers and ministries vary too. Sometimes the problem is not institutional; there may be a personnel problem, involving those who have corrupt or political links with people or organisations carrying out a parallel policy.

Speaking of parallel policies, I want to discuss what has been happening in Sri Lanka. There was a period under the previous Government when we were selling a large quantity of armaments to Sri Lanka. That was mainly during the ceasefire, which lasted about two years and then broke down. At that time, a large number of export licenses to Sri Lanka were revoked. As of 2009, when the civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers came to its conclusion, exports from this country were very limited. However, the Sri Lankan armed forces undoubtedly used vast quantities of stockpiled imported ammunition, munitions and weaponry for their armed forces on land and their naval forces. Much of that undoubtedly came from the United Kingdom.

It now seems that the Sri Lankan Government have been lobbying very hard, both before and since the change of Government in this country in 2010, for a relaxation of the current restrictions on arms exports to Sri Lanka. I should like the Minister to give me an assurance that there is no change in export policy on Sri Lanka, and that we are not satisfied that the human rights situation has improved sufficiently for there to be a change of policy. A few months ago, the Government stated that we were awaiting the outcome of an internal assessment by the commission established by the Sri Lankan Government, which is due to report next month, before determining whether to press for an independent international inquiry into the serious allegations of war crimes committed in 2009. Those were documented on Channel 4 and elsewhere, and by the special representative established by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Will the Minister assure me that that means there will be no relaxation until we are satisfied that there has been a significant change of approach in Sri Lanka?

The reason why I raise such concerns is that reports have appeared—for example, Jason Burke’s in The Guardian on 13 October—about the number of unofficial visits made by the former Secretary of State for Defence and his personal adviser Mr Werritty to Sri Lanka, and the number of meetings that took place between the Minister in question and senior figures in the Sri Lankan Government. I shall give just one quotation, but there are many. The article in The Guardian, talking about 2009, before the general election, states:

“With political officers in London telling Sri Lanka that Labour was almost certain to lose coming elections, Fox was seen in Colombo as a major potential asset…Sources say now that they received specific information that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the feared defence secretary and the brother of the president, had asked Fox to lobby for more access to British weapons.”

Fortunately, the next paragraph states:

“In fact, with evidence of human rights abuses within Sri Lanka mounting, the restrictions were tightened.”

That was under the Labour Government before the general election. Since then, we have seen a number of visits by Ministers and contacts made with the Sri Lankan Government. I would like to know what matters were discussed. Was a relaxation of arms export restrictions on Sri Lanka discussed in meetings between Defence and other Ministers and representatives of the Sri Lankan Government? If so, what was our Government’s response to any request?

It seems that a parallel policy has been going on. Jim Pickard wrote the following in the Financial Times on 12 October:

“Last year a memorandum of understanding was struck between the Sri Lankan government and…two funds”,

the first being the Sri Lanka infrastructure development fund and the second being the Sri Lanka charitable fund. He continued:

“A trust set up by Liam Fox to help Sri Lanka’s development appears to have achieved nothing other than to pay for the MP’s trips to the country”.

My question to the Minister is, why was the former Secretary of State visiting Sri Lanka? Did he discuss arms exports to Sri Lanka or a relaxation of the British policy of restricting defence exports to that country? It is important that those questions be answered, because we know that the Sri Lankan Government have been lobbying hard since 2009 for what they regard as a normalisation of their relationships with a number of countries, in an effort to return to receiving a large amount of weaponry and components, which they had been getting from the UK for many years before 2009.

As I understand it, the Foreign Secretary has been to Sri Lanka only once since the general election, but the former Defence Secretary has been there three times in the past year to meet its president. He also attended the national convention of the president’s political party. I wonder whether there was a consistency regarding the policies on arms exports—

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is experienced. I am sure that he has read the report carefully and will be careful to relate his comments closely to it, and not veer too widely into the former Defence Secretary’s activities.

Mike Gapes: I will do so. I wish simply to point out that there is an important restriction on Sri Lanka receiving arms exports at the moment. My concern is whether there is any information that may have led Ministers to become aware that there have been attempts to change that policy. If not, I would like an assurance on that. The four Select Committees have jointly raised the issue of arms exports to Sri Lanka in successive reports. We also took evidence and questioned Ministers, officials and other organisations when they came before our Committee, both in the previous year and before that.

Finally, I would like to return to what is happening in the Arab world. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling rightly highlighted the problem of what might happen in countries that have not yet gone through a revolutionary transformation. We know that the Bahraini regime was, at its request, propped up by neighbouring Gulf Co-operation Council states. Armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates went into Bahrain. As far as I am aware, they have done a policing operation and have not been engaged. There is no evidence of a repression by those forces in Bahrain. However, the political situation there remains fraught. Its regime is a monarchy, but it is a minority in Bahraini society: it is a Sunni regime ruling a majority Shi’a population in a volatile region. Neighbouring Iran has territorial ambitions on Bahrain and is undoubtedly meddling in the politics of the Arab world.

There is potential for further serious violence in Bahrain. At the moment, we need to be careful about what that violence could do to trigger wider Sunni-Shi’a violence, not just there but in other parts of the region. There is a significant Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia, and we need to be aware that the Saudi regime, even though it is more popular than some other regimes in the region, has a potential problem. Saudi Arabia has a growing, young population that lacks employment opportunities. If world oil prices go down, as they seem to be doing at the moment, the regime will no longer be able to use its money in the same way to buy off potential discontent. We need to be aware that exported British arms could then become available in a volatile situation. The Government need to look ahead not just one or two years, but to what kind of Arab world or Gulf we will have, and what Britain’s role will be. Which side will we be on?


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