On Thursday 30th October, there was a general debate in Westminster Hall, dealing with the Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Controls (2014). This was the first Joint Report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls:
– Sir John Stanley, chairman of the joint committee: [passage omitted] In turning to Israel, I want to make it crystal clear at the outset that I condemn unreservedly Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel. However, Israel has serious questions to answer about its use of lethal weapons that has resulted in the recent death of well over 2,000 Palestinians—men, women and children—in Gaza, the great majority of whom were certainly not Hamas fighters.
The Foreign Office, in its annual human rights report, includes Israel—entirely rightly in my view—in its list of the 28 countries of top human rights concern to the British Government. In our latest report, we have listed for each of those countries the extant UK Government-approved arms export licences. Our report shows that Israel has the third largest number of extant arms export licences of those 28 countries, with a total of 470—a figure exceeded only by China and Saudi Arabia. In addition, our report shows that of those 28 countries’ extant arms export licences, the largest by value is Israel’s, totalling £8 billion in value. However, I want to stress this very important point: that £8 billion is largely made up of a gigantic cryptographic equipment export order, valued at £7.7 billion, which the Defence Secretary, when he was Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, assured the Committees was
“for purely commercial end use.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 426WH.]
Early in August, following what happened in Gaza, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary, asking him to list the controlled goods that the British Government had approved for export to Israel and that the Government had reason to believe may have been used by Israel in the recent military operations in Gaza. The Foreign Secretary gave me his reply on 19 August, saying
“officials have judged it unlikely that many of the components that were the subject of extant licences were for incorporation into systems that would be likely to be used offensively in Gaza”.
However, he went on to say, significantly in my view, that
“12 licences have been identified…where, in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, and on the basis of information currently available to us, there could be a risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
I think that is a very significant statement by the Foreign Secretary, and it once again reinforces the Committees’ recommendation for a significantly more cautious policy when dealing with the export of arms that can be used for internal repression.
– Jeremy Corbyn: I have two points to make: first, was the right hon. Gentleman concerned about the supply of drone aircraft parts to Israel during the recent operation and, I believe, since then? Secondly, was it ever identified exactly what the commercial purpose of the massive £7.7 billion order was, and what the boundaries were between commercial use, civilian control and military use?
– Sir John Stanley: [passage omitted] On components for unmanned aerial vehicles, I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to what I just read out from the Foreign Secretary’s letter; he specifically refers to components that were for “incorporation into systems”. His view was that it was unlikely that they were used in Gaza, and I cannot take it any further than that, I am afraid.
– Ann McKechin: [passage omitted] Another use of language in the Government’s lexicon to ease them out of difficult dilemmas is the term “significant hostilities”. Our annual report predated the dreadful events during July and August in Gaza and Israel, which resulted in the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians, 67 Israelis and one foreign national, as well as the indiscriminate destruction of schools, hospitals and homes and the displacement of more than 470,000 people. As the Chair has done, I condemn the operation of Hamas and the indiscriminate bombing of Israel, but I also condemn the Israeli Government for the disproportionate nature of the attacks on Gaza, the consequences of which the civilian population had to take.
The UK working group on arms has stated its concern that the Government’s failure to suspend or revoke any of the existing licences is contrary to their obligations under articles 6 and 7 of the arms trade treaty, within which the Government have indicated that they are operating. The Government did not even follow their own domestic licensing criteria. As soon as hostilities commenced in July, there was a clear risk that the United Kingdom might be supplying military equipment that could be used, as the former Foreign Secretary indicated in a letter to the Committees, in the commission of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The only proper response should have been the immediate suspension, if not the revocation, of the 12 licences identified by the Government in their internal review. In the Government’s response of 19 August, however, a new criterion appears to have been added. Suspension or revocation would not occur unless there was
“a resumption of significant hostilities”.
As the UK working group pointed out, that phrase has set a new, arbitrary and subjective threshold and a dangerous precedent.
I am looking forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that he will tell us on what basis that new test was agreed. Was there a discussion between No. 10, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office or the Department for International Development about setting that qualification? I am sure that the document went past every single relevant ministerial desk before it was issued to our Committees. Has there been any discussion with our EU partners about a common approach on exports to Israel following the summer hostilities? Are the Government now prepared to remove that additional test and revert to their original criteria? If so, will they reconsider the licences and act to suspend them if those criteria have not been met? [passage omitted]
– Jeremy Corbyn: [passage omitted] My first point is about Israel and Palestine. To reiterate what is said in the report’s introduction, we all witnessed what happened in Gaza recently. It was not the first operation—I hope it is the last operation, but it certainly was not the first—because there has also been Operation Cast Lead, among others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) pointed out, we have witnessed the destruction of Gaza several times over. There have been several worldwide appeals to rebuild Gaza only for it to be bombed and then rebuilt again some years later. We are exporting surveillance and other equipment to Israel, and indeed we are importing arms from Israel, but while the war crimes investigation organised by the United Nations Human Rights Council is ongoing, we need to think very carefully about our arms export policy for Israel.
I hope that the Minister is able to explain in detail the massive communications equipment order placed by Israel. I think the expenditure that has been cited is £7.7 billion, which is absolutely massive. I do not know what the equipment is for, but I cannot believe that a country of only 5 million people would want to spend so much on something that, while it could be used for commercial mobile phone services or something else, did not have a military component. I would be grateful to know what inquiries were made, what end-user surveillance there has been for Israel, and whether there will be restrictions on such exports in the future. [passage omitted]
The report also cites the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone conference, which is now apparently supported by everybody. I have sat through a number of non-proliferation treaty review conferences during which a number of countries—principally countries within the region, and usually countries in the Arab League—have raised a proposal from the 2000 review conference that to stop the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons across the middle east, as only Israel has nuclear weapons in the region at the moment, that middle east conference should try to create a region free of nuclear weapons and WMD. That has never happened, however. The Finnish Government were unable to organise it, but it has been reiterated that the conference will be held. At the last review conference, every permanent member of the Security Council—Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States—got up and said they supported that. Iran supports it. and Israel has not said no to it, so I wonder what is the impediment to that conference taking place, if all the players want to attend? [passage omitted]
– Ian Murray: [passage omitted] The second area of concern is the issue of Israel and Palestine. We can all recall the spiral of violence over the summer that engulfed Gaza, southern Israel and the west bank. We condemn, as we always have in this Chamber and across the House, the firing of rockets into Israel by Gaza-based militants. No Government on earth would tolerate such attacks on their citizens, but the disproportionate response, yet again—my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned Operation Cast Lead—by the Israeli Government to Gaza fuels even more conflict and even more distrust of the system. That is why the Government have to look seriously at whether the UK’s arms export controls and licences are helping the situation or making it worse.
The Government’s internal review identified 12 specific licences covering a range of military equipment—including components for military radar systems, combat aircraft and tanks—which, as the review states, “could be part of equipment used by the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza.”
The review shows that there have been particular issues with Israel and Palestine. I was shocked to hear of the letter that was sent to the Chair of the Committees by the Foreign Secretary. To quote it directly, the Foreign Secretary was concerned that there was “a serious violation of international humanitarian law” in Israel’s response. We demand an immediate publication of the Government’s review. Our view was that no arms should be exported under existing licences while doubts remain as to whether any equipment could be used for internal repression, the abuse of human rights or to provoke prolonged arm conflict or violate international humanitarian law.
It is particularly important that we have transparency on the system in this case. The British public need assurances that the UK’s arms export sales have not been in contradiction of the consolidated criteria and have not contributed to that particular conflict. Directly on Israel and Palestine, does the Minister agree that the Government should suspend or revoke any licences for export to Israel of controlled items where there is a clear risk, or even a hint of a risk, that they will be used in combat operations in the occupied territories of Palestine? I am not an avid follower of the Minister on Twitter, but he tweeted a press release this morning condemning Israel for the continued building of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. The Israel-Palestine peace process is fragile, and we should do all we can to ensure that arms exports are not contributing to the problem. [passage omitted]
– Tobias Ellwood: [passage omitted] I am limited in what I can say about the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, because it is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings. As hon. Members may know, the Government conducted a careful analysis of existing export licences for Israel. That review, the outcome of which was announced on 12 August, found that the vast majority of exports currently licensed are not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza. During the review period, no new licences were issued to supply equipment to the Israel defence forces. However, as was mentioned, in the review, 12 licences for components were identified as potentially able to contribute to equipment that could be used by the Israel defence forces in Gaza.
Following the review, the Government announced that if there was a resumption of significant hostilities, the 12 licences would be suspended. In addition, the Government continue to monitor the situation in Israel and Gaza closely, and existing licences that are found to be no longer consistent with the consolidated criteria will be revoked. It remains our overarching priority to ensure that there is a lasting settlement that enables Israelis and Palestinians to live alongside one another securely and peacefully. The UK Government will continue to work closely with colleagues in the EU and elsewhere to help achieve that. I visited Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel last month and saw what was happening on the ground. I am conscious of the mood of the House, after the Palestine debate last week. We will continue to monitor the situation.
– Sir John Stanley: [passage omitted] I will briefly make one comment about the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North. She rightly and acutely picked up that the Government appear to have erected an additional hurdle before revocations or suspensions can take place to extant arms exports licences to Israel. I want to highlight to her an extraordinary contradiction that I am sure we will want to pursue. The Government have on the one hand dropped the broad test in the October 2000 statement of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) from the consolidated criteria, but they have brought it back when dealing with suspensions. We made that point in paragraph 126 of our report:
“The Committees conclude that the Government’s decision to apply the broad test of ‘equipment which might be used for internal repression’ rather than the narrow test of ‘clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression’ for deciding whether arms export licences should be suspended is welcome.”
I cannot begin to explain the Government’s contradictory position on that key point, but I am sure that we will be considering it further in Committee. [passage omitted]