The last week has been dominated by two truly horrendous foreign news stories:
the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people over eastern Ukraine and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, where deaths are running at more than 500 people. Over the same period, more than 700 have been killed in Syria during the ongoing onslaught by Isis in the latest phase of a brutal civil war.
The predictable response in the first two instances is to call for sanctions. David Cameron has called on France to halt a warship order destined for Russia and thousands of supporters for the Palestinian cause demand an arms embargo against Israel.
Loading article content
But weapons tend to have a long shelf life and the common thread is that no-one could have predicted this series of events three years ago, in the case of Ukraine in a shorter period. The 21st century has been marked by increasing volatility and the dramatic ending of long established regimes in some of the most contentious parts of the globe. Establishing an arms export policy that adequately addresses both the need to maintain ethical standards and meet the new strategic challenges emerging has never been so challenging.
This week's publication of the Arms Export Control Committee's annual report could not be more timely. The report provides a wealth of information on the scale of our export industry and, in particular, to those 28 countries listed of concern on human rights by the Foreign Office, worth £11.9 billion.
Our committee work was focused this year on the sale of dual-use chemicals to Syria including one licence (not utilised) granted during the initial stages of the civil war in 2012 when Syria was a known holder of chemical weapon and a non-signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
After a great deal of prodding by the committee, the Government conceded that licences were granted without specific ministerial authority. Given that we know UK chemical components exported to Syria in the 1980s and 90s were utilised for chemical weapon manufacture, this appears to be astonishingly lax practice.
The increasing sales of dual-use cryptographic equipment and software to countries of concern is, as our committee states, "a matter of considerable disquiet". The EU has tightened the regulation of surveillance technology exports but the Government needs to give this area much more attention, given the rapid technological changes and the credible information on how this equipment has been used to suppress human rights and spy on opposition activists.
It is baffling, for example, why Bahrain has been added to the Business Department's priority markets list, notwithstanding the very serious human rights concerns reported over a lengthy period.
Ratification by the UK of the Arms Trade Treaty is welcome progress but our evidence revealed that the Government has taken a step backwards in considering its criteria on exports that may be used for internal repression. The new consolidated criteria omit the statement "an export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed by … concern that the goods might be used for internal repression" and the committee considers this to be a substantive change in policy that weakens the previous test introduced by the Labour Government in 2000.
As our report states, in the past two-and-a-half years alone, the Government has had to revoke 209 licences to 17 different countries and suspend a further 109. We conclude that our policy on control essentially reacts to events and fails sufficiently to take into account the nature of the regimes concerned. The fate of Libya and Syria shows us the failure of our policy to consider long-term change. Who would like to predict where Egypt or Saudi Arabia will be in the next five or 10 years?
It is time to commit to a thorough recalibration of our policy on exports. It is, of course, impossible to predict every event but recent history should teach us the lesson of the need for much greater caution.