The UK may have helped Syria make nerve gas – but lax controls mean we’ll never know
It has become something of a cliche for Whitehall to reassure British citizens that it has “one of the most robust arms export controls in the world”. It is the stock response civil servants, press officers and ministers turn to when asked about arms sales to human rights abusers or conflict zones, and was used in 2013 when confronted about the decision to grant licences for the sale of chemicals to Syria that could have been used in the production of nerve gas.
Thankfully the licences were revoked, after a Europe-wide embargo. However, there is little doubt that UK-produced chemicals sold to Syria in the past have been used in the production of weapons.
The then foreign secretary William Hague admitted as much in 2014, when he told parliament: “We judge it likely that these chemical exports by UK companies were subsequently used by Syria in their programmes to produce nerve agents, including Sarin.”
The substances, which were exported in the 1980s, may have had legitimate uses, but knowing the risks, and the nature of the cruel regime, then led by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, they should never have been sold.
Another example of the short-term thinking that characterises the arms trade was exposed last year, when the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, had to inform parliament that UK-made cluster bombs sold to Saudi Arabia throughout the 1980s were used by Saudi forces in civilian areas of Yemen as recently as 2016.
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The story of weapons being sold to brutal and authoritarian leaders with little thought for the consequences is a common one, and not confined to the 1980s. After being “brought in from the cold” in 2004, Colonel Gaddafi became a major target for UK arms sales. In 2007 a “defence cooperation agreement” was signed between Tony Blair’s government and Gaddafi, paving the way for “training in operational planning processes, staff training, and command and control” and the “acquisition of equipment and defence systems”.
Arms companies were quick to cash in, with tens of millions of pounds worth of arms sales to follow. In 2010 alone the UK licensed the sale of more than £34m worth of arms to Libya, including small arms ammunition and crowd control ammunition. The sales continued right up until the uprising and civil war in 2011, when Gaddafi’s forces turned their weapons against Libyan people.
Not only can weapons survive a deterioration of government relations, they can easily change hands. There is no such thing as arms control in a war zone. In 2013 a UN committee traced weapons that had been sold to Gaddafi to Egypt, Niger, Somalia, Gaza and Syria. There are even reports of UK arms being sold over social media.
Likewise, in 2015 the Pentagon had to admit that it had lost track of $500m worth of weapons that it had sent to the Yemeni government. These weapons are still unaccounted for, with fears that they may have fallen into the hands of Houthi rebels or al-Qaida.
One of the reasons Islamic State is so well armed is because it has obtained large quantities of weapons that were originally sold to governments in the region, including guns and armoured vehicles. In 2015 Amnesty International identified 25 countries, including the UK, that had produced arms which were diverted to Isis.
At present, two-thirds of UK arms exports are going to the Middle East, a region that is already awash with weapons. More than £3bn worth of fighter jets and bombs have been licensed to Saudi Arabia in the past two years alone – playing a central role in the ongoing Saudi-led destruction of Yemen.
This is unlikely to change if Theresa May and Liam Fox’s grovelling post-Brexit visits to Gulf monarchs in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are anything to go by. Many of the regimes being courted will be in London this September, when the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair brings some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships together to do business with the biggest arms companies.
There is no way of knowing how these arms will be used in the future, or who they will be used against. Will the arms sales of today be implicated in the atrocities and humanitarian abuses of the future?
As long as government policies are designed to put arms sales ahead of arms control and human rights, we will see these terrible scenarios arising again and again. One thing is sure – irrespective of the human cost, we will no doubt be reassured of how “robust” the export policy is, and all the while business will simply go on as usual.