Stephen Gethins: UK arms export guidelines are not working

Posted On: 
24th June 2019

We must ensure the weapons we trade cannot be used by states targeting civilians, writes Stephen Gethins

A protester outside the gates of Downing Street
Credit: 
PA Images

The SNP believes that we all need to take our responsibilities as a member of the international community incredibly seriously. It is important to ensure that our policies do no harm to developing countries, do not undermine international development aims and ideally contribute to international development success. We hold these principles to be at the core of our political and moral ideals, and have the clear aspiration that Scotland becoming independent must not only benefit Scotland and its allies, but the wider world as a whole.

As such, the SNP is determined that Scotland takes a responsible approach and shows leadership when it comes to the arms trade. Ongoing conflicts such as the devastating war in Yemen demonstrate that the guidelines currently being used by many significant security powers, particularly the UK, are insufficient in insulating civilians in these wars from destruction at the hands of UK-built weaponry and equipment.

The conflict has been going on for years, with thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of Saudi-led coalition forces in addition to millions displaced and hundreds of thousands being at risk of death from disease and famine. Despite the unravelling crisis in the country, the UK government is yet to change its policy with respect to exporting weapons, and Saudi Arabia remains the UK’s biggest arms client by far. The UK government acknowledges that there is no military solution to the conflict, and yet continues to arm parties involved in the catastrophic war.

'Despite the unravelling crisis in Yemen, the UK government is yet to change its policy with respect to exporting weapons' 

It does so at a time when our partners in other European states are stopping the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. This illustrates that the wider arms sales regime is clearly failing and does not meet the rigorous standards claimed by the UK government. This is something my SNP colleagues and I have consistently raised in the House of Commons, and we welcome last week’s powerful court ruling that the UK government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. It is a damning indictment of the Tory government’s flawed foreign policy approach that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. If nothing else does, that decision must now serve as a wake-up call for the UK government. It must now urgently re-think its strategy and instead seek to become a player for peace in the country.

No policy can exist on its own and when considering the arms sales regime, we must take into consideration the wider context. Long-term reconstruction and development must be at the core of peace-building efforts. Yet in Yemen the amount that the UK has donated in aid is dwarfed by the value of arms sales. That is not a sustainable ratio for building a sustainable peace.

The war in Yemen has brought into stark focus that standards have been insufficient, and it has taken concerted pressure from civil society to bring about changes in the policies of EU member states’ governments. The SNP commits in full to ensuring that any weapons traded from Scotland will not be used by states that are targeting civilians, and indicators for a state wilfully intending to violate human rights will be core criterion for whether a foreign state can be considered as a trading partner in arms and military hardware.

There is a role to be played by the defence industry, however it must be subject to the highest scrutiny. There has also been some success in Scotland in recent times in using technologies developed by the defence sector in other areas such as search and rescue operations.

We must all be mindful that the decisions we take have an impact far beyond our shores. Any policy on the arms trade cannot stand alone and must be considered on the basis of our wider international obligations. Yemen is a current illustration of where that has failed. However recent experience has also shown that in areas like Libya and Iraq, a focus must go onto the long-term impacts of any policy decisions. Perhaps it is time to reassess those policies overall. War is always more expensive than peace, and developing friends, allies and trading partners in areas that have been affected by conflict is a much better long-term investment and strategy, requiring a more coherent foreign policy at its heart.

Stephen Gethins is SNP MP for North East Fife and spokesperson for International Affairs & Europe