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Tim Farron MP: Time to stop selling arms to countries listed in FCO Human Rights Report

4 min read

Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Tim Farron MP calls for a shift in UK arms exports, noting the UK currently trades with 24 of the 28 countries listed in annual FCO Human Rights Report.

Now and then you come across something the Government does which you can’t quite believe was ever considered OK – let alone that it is still the case. If you were starting the arms trade from scratch, most people would agree that it’s not a good idea to export arms to the same countries which are on your human rights watch list (putting it mildly). At the very least, you might want those countries to prove that they won’t use those arms to repress and abuse their own citizens.

This position is hardly in the sandal-wearing pacifist camp. But it’s not the position of the UK Government.
Currently, the Foreign Office will recommend approving a licence application for the sale of arms unless there is a “clear risk” the exports might be used for internal repression or other domestic human rights abuses. This is the case even if the destination is listed as a country of concern in the FCO’s annual human rights report. So one half of the Government spends excruciatingly tragic hours documenting the horrific murder and oppression of citizens in countries across the world. And the other half gives the green light to arms exports to that country.  Or, more probably, can’t quite get the evidence and tools in place to use a red light.


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To be fair, it is true that the UK operates “one of the most robust and transparent arms export control systems in the world”. Every application is examined against internationally-recognised criteria, which does include human rights risks. The problem is more in the way that the export licenses are constructed – bluntly, unless there’s pretty good evidence that arms are used for repression, then the UK’s default position is to sell away.
We’re currently exporting to 24 out of the 28 countries listed in the annual Human Rights Report (2013-2014) – including Somalia, CAR, Yemen and Zimbabwe. We need to change that default position.
We need to shift the burden of proof: if the country is listed in the FCO annual human rights report, we should presume that UK arms exports will not be granted unless its government can show that the arms will not be used to abuse human rights. Simply, it sends out this message “unless there’s sufficient evidence that this won’t increase human rights abuses, we won’t sell arms to you.”
Opponents of this change will argue that every country has the right to self-defence, that some situations are greyer than simple rules allow, that the reality on the ground is much messier. I agree – in part. But those situations should be the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.  Exceptional cases should be presented to ministers on a case by case basis.  

The Liberal Democrats have driven world-leading improvements in the arms trade, including the first ever International Arms Trade Treaty. We pushed this specific policy in Coalition, and in our manifesto. As Foreign Affairs Spokesman, I was bemused as to why this common sense policy wasn’t already in place. Now, with the very foundation of human rights being cast away by the Conservatives, it’s not so hard to see why…

This isn’t about being anti-business or afraid of trade. No legislation is required to do this. We simply cannot stand with our heads held high on the international stage when we are selling arms to countries with serious human rights abuses. The requirement to provide “clear evidence” is not fit for purpose.
If I am elected leader, I want to rebuild our Party so that we can be a strong, liberal voice for our country. It’s time that the Government implemented a policy of ‘presumption of denial’ for arms exports to countries listed as countries of concern in the Foreign Office’s annual human rights report. It’s time to stop pretending to be in favour of human rights and start acting like it. 

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