The current conflict in Gaza is resulting in grievous loss of civilian life. Three Israeli civilians have been killed and around 1,800 Palestinians. Atrocities have been committed against civilians, almost all by the Israeli Defence Forces (as follows from the above figures), including well-publicised ones condemned by the US Government and UN Secretary-General.
There have been reports in the media that the British Government is “reviewing the sale of £8bn in arms and military goods to Israel to see whether each licence is appropriate in light of the conflict in Gaza”. The Government Department that issues export licences, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is (according to this report) checking whether the extant licences allow the sale of equipment which could be used for “internal repression”, or to “provoke or prolong conflict”. However, there is nothing about this on the the Number 10, FCO and Export Control Organisation websites.
So what is going on? In the recent past, export licences already approved and held by exporters have been suspended during moments of crisis. For example on 21 August 2013 in response to “increasing levels of violence in Egypt”, EU states agreed to review approved export licences. One week later, the Export Control Organisation suspended all existing licences for equipment which might be used for internal repression to various Egyptian military or security bodies. On 18 March 2014 the then Foreign Secretary announced the suspension of all licences “for direct export to Russia for military and dual use items destined for units of the Russian armed forces or other state agencies which could be or are being deployed against Ukraine”.
What about Israel? No such announcement has been made, despite the suffering we see reported in the media daily.
So why has there been no suspension of all existing arms export licences to Israel at least? It would be a sensible precautionary measure. It would hardly be much of a sacrifice for business, would it, to have contracts frustrated for a short time, so officials can identify problematic licences and revoke them? But Government Ministers cannot, apparently, even bring themselves to take this incredibly modest step, despite previous use of British equipment in Operation Cast Lead (the previous major Israeli attack on Gaza), and the evidence reported daily of the consequences of current Israeli use of its military equipment. (Incidentally, I would favour an embargo lasting a very long time. This would not bring an end to the conflict overnight obviously, but while the Israelis face no sanction of any kind from UN Security Council powers such as Britain, they have no incentive to even think about changing their behaviour).
Currently, while the carnage continues, the British arms industry can continue to supply the Israeli Defence Forces under licences issued prior to the current crisis, with equipment that may be used in Gaza, while Ministers procrastinate. A recent report by Parliament’s Committees on Arms Exports reveals that extant licences for Israel include
anti-riot/ballistic shields, body armour, components for body armour, components for all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection, components for equipment employing cryptography, components for military combat vehicles, components for military communications equipment, components for military support vehicles, components for small arms ammunition, components for sniper rifles, cryptographic software, equipment employing cryptography, general military vehicle components, military communications equipment, small arms ammunition, software for equipment employing cryptography, technology for equipment employing cryptography, technology for military communications equipment, technology for small arms ammunition, technology for the use of equipment employing cryptography, water cannon and weapon sights.
The above comments beg another, more important question. Suppose we really do want to end exports which “risk” being used in “internal repression” or to “provoke or prolong” conflict. What would an appropriate policy be? What would responsible export licensing look like? In future posts I will try and provide some serious answers to this question, building on the excellent exploration of these issues by Parliament’s Committees on Arms Exports.
To be sure, the answer will not be the system we have now, a permissive system based on short-term assessments of risk, whereas the equipment being licensed will exist and be used by the customers for years and in many cases decades. A system, in short that, at the very least, provides no assurance British military equipment will always remain in responsible hands, and, arguably inevitably means some of it will be used to inflict great suffering on civilians at some future point.
Incidentally, if anyone knows how the Arms Trade Treaty, when ratified, would have any impact on situations like these, please do explain below.