COMMITTEES ON ARMS EXPORT CONTROLS
ORAL EVIDENCE FROM MINISTERS
Boothroyd Room, House of Commons
Questions 53 – 59
Q53 Dr Julian Lewis [Defence Committee]: Would it be fair to say that there are two huge incentives for the British Government to turn a blind eye to any breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi authorities, in particular? The first is that, rightly or wrongly, Saudi Arabia is regarded as a key strategic ally and the second – perhaps a lesser imperative but nevertheless a significant one – is that we sell a great deal of defence equipment to Saudi Arabia. If it is true that those are incentives to turn a blind eye to human rights violations, why do we sign up to conventions on arms exports that say that we should not export arms to countries that commit human rights violations?
[Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Middle East, FCO] Tobias Ellwood: I would say that the exact opposite is true. Saudi Arabia is a culturally conservative country that is not used to having a Jamie Shea-type character – if you can remember him from the Kosovo intervention – bringing the nation, internationally or otherwise, up to date on a regular basis. Saudi Arabia is aware that it needs to be more transparent in what it is doing. The suggestion that you make is that somehow we turn a blind eye. Not only would that damage our reputation but it would take Saudi Arabia in quite the wrong direction, just as we are encouraging it to make incremental steps to improve its human rights position and its position in the region.
Q54 Dr Lewis: The problem is that when you have a country that has a great deal further to go to improve its human rights position, as Saudi Arabia has certainly [to do], by definition, such a country may well employ weapons that we have supplied, in breach of people’s human rights and of the conventions to which we sign up when we say that we are not going to supply weapons to countries that have an insufficient standard of human rights. Are you saying to me that, if it could be shown that Saudi Arabia had used our weapons indiscriminately, in breach of human rights, we would stop supplying those weapons, or are you saying that, in fact, because we are so busy urging them to come up to modern, 21st-century standards, we should nevertheless not break off that relationship of weapons supply?
[Minister of State for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise] Anna Soubry: This is quite important. I know that Tobias will come in, but I hope that the Committee has before it all the criteria, word for word, that have to be exercised before any licence is granted. I am helpfully reminded by Mr Dunne that each case is considered on its own merits. You look at each licence; there is no blanket approach to any country.
I am looking at criterion 2:
“The respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country for international humanitarian law. Having assessed the recipient country’s attitude towards relevant principles established by international human rights instruments, the Government will: a) not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression; b) exercise special caution and vigilance in granting licences, on a case-by-case basis and taking account of the nature of the equipment, to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the” United Nations –
Q55 Dr Lewis: With the greatest respect, Minister, this is what we have to apply before we supply the weapons. The question we are concerned with is what happens if we think they have met those stringent conditions, we supply the weapons and then we find out that they have used the weapons in ways incompatible with the conditions. Do we then break off the relationship, or do we still say:
“Saudi Arabia is such a vital strategic ally, and, what’s more, they buy so much of our defence equipment that we’d better carry on”?
Anna Soubry: Mr Lewis, I took slight exception to the tone – or the content, rather – of your question. The allegation was that we are turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia, for those reasons and I just do not accept that. Trust me, Mr White [CAEC Chairman] – I’m not going to read out any more from the criteria. We apply the criteria on a case-by-case basis. That is how we operate. I object to the idea that we turn a blind eye because of other considerations. We do not do that.
Chair [Chris White]: Minister, we still need to get through a number of questions.
Q56 Dr Lewis: I must pursue this. Frankly, I do not care whether you like my tone or not, Minister –
Anna Soubry: But I am entitled to say it.
Dr Lewis: What I want you to do is to answer the question.
Anna Soubry: I am.
Q57 Dr Lewis: No, you are not. You are saying that you do not like my tone. The question is quite straightforward. We give deadly weapons to unsavoury regimes like the Saudis – sorry, our ‘strategic allies’ – in accordance with our best estimates that they will use them in accordance with certain agreed standards. My question to you, which you have not answered and which no one has answered yet, is this. If we give them those weapons and they then abuse the weapons – if they break the standards that we gave them, on the assumption that they would observe those standards – do we simply say,
“Well, we must carry on with this relationship,”
or do we say,
“Right, that’s it. We are going to cancel these deals”?
You have explained what we do before we give them the weapons. What I want to know is, what do we do if, after we have given them the weapons, we find that they have not used them in the way they were supposed to?
Anna Soubry: Indeed. However, your first question was different, and I have answered it. In answer to your second question, my short answer is no, and Mr Dunne [Defence Procurement Minister] will very ably explain more as to why your assertion is not correct. I would answer no.
Q58 Dr Lewis: So we would break off the arms supply relationship if we found that they were not using the weapons that we supply according to the basis on which we supply them.
Anna Soubry: We look at each case on a – [Interruption.] I am sorry. You may not like the answer, but that is the answer.
Q59 Dr Lewis: It is not the answer. Let me give you a specific case, and then I will give up. I will give you the last word and people can judge for themselves whether you have answered the question. Let us consider a specific case. We have supplied a certain quantity of bombs, on the basis that they will be used in a certain way. Then we find that they have not been used in that way but have been used in a way that breaches international humanitarian law. My question is, do we then say,
“Right, that’s it. No more bombs,”
[Minister of State for Defence Procurement, MoD] Philip Dunne: We routinely assess – not constantly, but routinely – that certain applications for new arms exports do not meet the clear criteria that have been set. The criteria have different levels. As a result of those refusals, from time to time we lose defence business with a whole host of countries, including some of our closest allies. The Minister is quite right to refer to case by case, because we look at these issues each time.
Somebody mentioned cluster bombs. We have not supplied cluster bombs for many decades, but some countries have a stock of cluster bombs that we supplied in the past, under previous Administrations. If those were to be used inappropriately and we were still supplying cluster bombs – we are not, because we have signed the convention – we would decline those licences.
You are suggesting a hypothetical. We are not at the point where we can answer the question specifically in relation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because the investigations that are being undertaken into the incidents have not concluded. We are therefore not in a position where we can answer your question in the way you have put it, because we do not have that information at this point.
Anna Soubry: To make it very clear, if it is found that there has been a breach of those criteria with an export licence, the answer is a very clear yes. We will revoke licences. We will suspend licences, if there is evidence – just so that we are very clear.
Mr Ellwood: We have done this with Russia, Egypt and Yemen, for example. There are real examples where this has happened. The relationship continues, but the licences can be revoked or, indeed, suspended. That does not prevent us from continuing a human rights dialogue and all the other aspects of the relationship.
Anna Soubry: We do not turn a blind eye.