26 Apr 2011

British arms sales: defending the indefensible?

Recent events in the Middle East have highlighted the United Kingdom’s position as one of the world’s most successful arms producers.

With several Arab countries in turmoil, the Middle East might not seem the obvious destination for a UK leader. Yet in February Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron engaged in separate tours of the region.

Mr Cameron was filmed walking through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Egyptian revolt. While in the country he met premier Ahmed Shafik and and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s armed forces.

After Egypt, Mr Cameron moved on to Kuwait. But the fact that he was travelling as part of a business delegation – and at the same time as Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya enforced what reports said was a brutal crackdown on protesters there – focused attention on British arms sales to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East.

David Cameron shakes hands with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik (Reuters)

‘Strategic partnerships’
In addition to UK business leaders from the construction and energy sectors, the prime minister’s delegation contained eight executives from companies in Britain’s defence and aerospace sector. They included Ian King, chief executive of BAe Systems (which describes itself as the second largest global defence company) Victor Chavez of Thales UK, and Alastair Bisset of QinetiQ.

Understandable, perhaps, since the UK is among the world’s most successful defence exporters. A Freedom of Information release obtained by Campaign Against the Arms Trade shows that in the 10 years between 2000 and 2009 the total value of UK defence exports was $93bn – second only to the United States. The same document lists Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait as “key” defence and security markets in 2010 and 2011.

Mr Cameron’s presence in the Middle East coincided with a visit by Gerald Howarth, minister for international security strategy, to a major arms fair in Abu Dhabi. He told the opening session of Idex 2011: “We in Britain want to build strong, reliable and enduring strategic partnerships throughout the Gulf region.” A press release from ADS (Aerospace Defence Security), a trade organisation which promotes British defence interests, said there would be “nearly 90 organisations” at IDEX this year.

‘Crowd control ammunition’
As Middle East unrest spread to Libya in the middle of February 2011, reports appeared of security forces there using tear gas and live ammunition against protesters in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. It was noted that since the lifting of UK sanctions against Libya in 2004, British arms firms had been able to sell items of crowd control equipment to the Gaddafi regime.

A document published by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (but which appears on the Foreign Office website) lists the export licences granted to British firms in the third quarter of 2010. The list includes “crowd control ammunition”, “small arms ammunition” and “tear gas/irritant ammunition”.

The fact that the letter “T” precedes each of these entries indicates a temporary export – which in turn suggests the licences were granted to account for the items’ appearance at the LibDex arms fair at Mitiga airport, Tripoli, on 8 November 2010. The Tripoli Post reported that the exhibition attracted 100 companies from at least 24 countries.

The LibDex 2010 UK Pavilion page from the NMS website states that the event was attended by Richard Northern, the British ambassador to Libya, and by Richard Paniguian, formerly of BP, who heads the defence and security arm of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government body which “works with UK-based businesses to ensure their success in international markets”.

Defence interests
The same article quotes Louis Oliver, director of the NMS International, the British defence contractor which organised the exhibition. He announces: “We have at least 50 companies operating under one roof, covering defense and security, military, foreign rescue, forensic, communications, commander (sic) control systems and military training.”

In fact, NMS International, whose headquarters are in Market Harborough but which also has an office in Libya, describes itself on its website as a company “with interests in the Security and Defence markets as well as in Infrastructure and Technology”.

On 22 February Amnesty International published photographs of crowd control vehicles taken from the NMS website (which is no longer publicly accessible) which closely resemble vehicles shown attacking anti-Gaddafi protesters on a YouTube film posted five days previously. A report on the Guardian website says NMS have sold 10 armoured vehicles to Libya in the last four years. NMS were not available for comment when contacted by Channel 4 News.