Amnesty's condemnation of US, UK and French arms exports is misconceived.

30 Aug 2016

Just up the road from us here in Guildford is Farnborough; further down the road is Portsmouth. Farnborough is a world leader in the aerospace industry; BAE in Portsmouth is also a world leader in the maritime field.


In a statement published on 22 August[1], Amnesty International said:


“Currently the human rights impact of arms transfers is not being properly assessed in each case, as the ATT intended. For example, since March 2015 the US State Department has approved possible military sales of equipment and logistical support to Saudi Arabia worth over $24 billion, and between March 2015 and June 2016 the UK approved the export of £3.4 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. These approvals were given when the Saudi Arabia-led coalition was carrying out continuous, indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes and ground attacks on civilians in Yemen, some of which may amount to war crimes.”


The UK is accused by Amnesty of acting in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty articles 6 and 7.


With respect, we disagree.


Article 6(3) provides that:


A State Party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms covered under Article 2 (1) or of items covered under Article 3 or Article 4, if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.


Article 7:


If the export is not prohibited under Article 6, each exporting State Party, prior to authorization of the export of conventional arms covered under Article 2 (1) or of items covered under Article 3 or Article 4, under its jurisdiction and pursuant to its national control system, shall, in an objective and non-discriminatory manner, taking into account relevant factors, including information provided by the importing State in accordance with Article 8 (1), assess the potential that the conventional arms or items... [the Article then sets out the relevant factors.]


This is colloquially known as ‘the risk assessment’.


The UK arms exporting regime is the strictest legal set of regulations in the world. It is set out and comprehensively outlined in House of Commons Briefing Paper 02729 (8 May 2015). It states:


[A]ll applications to export arms and other strategically controlled goods that appear on what is known as the UK’s Strategic Export Control Lists, also called the Consolidated List of Strategic Military and Dual-Use Items that require Export Authorisation (henceforth, Consolidated List) have been considered, on a case-by-case basis, against the Consolidated Criteria.


Final decisions about specific applications are issued by the Export Control Organisation (ECO), which is part of the Department of Business and Skills, following consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Department for International Development (DFID).


Companies such as BAE are fiercely protective of their reputations as law-abiding international players. They have to be. Any violation of the arms exporting regime could lead to sanctions that would have a material impact on them as companies. Moreover, BAE and companies like it, based in Farnborough, are companies of the utmost integrity at the cutting edge of their fields.


The thrust of the Amnesty allegations, so far as we understand them, is that it is at the governmental level where risk assessments under Article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty have not been carried out in the case of sales to Saudi Arabia. It would appear, however, that such a risk assessment has indeed been carried out and no evidence of Article 6 or Article 7 violations has been found.


From the legal perspective, the point is a narrow one; leaving aside the fact that companies such as those based in Farnborough and BAE in Portsmouth are major high tech employers and world leaders, the requirements for international and domestic arms exports have been met.


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