Not a piece of cake for Hague and Cable at CAEC

It’s timely that Cabinet Ministers William Hague and Vince Cable are today appearing before Parliament’s Committee on Arms Export Controls (or CAEC – pronounced ‘cake’ – as it’s known in the trade) to be challenged on their arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa in recent years.

As Assad’s intensive military assault rains across the Syrian town of Homs, the news reports of people killed, maimed and in mourning could not present a more stark reminder of the consequences of weapons being in the hands of those likely to commit atrocities.  (Although perhaps no-one could have predicted the ferocity of this attack). 

Last October (when Libya’s unrest was in the news), we published a report revealing countries which supplied weapons to countries in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, despite there being a risk that these weapons could have been used to commit human rights violations. 

We “outed” the UK, revealing that it had licensed millions of pounds’ worth of military equipment to Bahrain, Libya and Yemen (not Syria).  And we called for tighter and more transparent mechanisms to be in place to ensure that no weapons of any kind are sent to countries where there is a substantial risk of these weapons being used to commit abuses. 

At the time, we urged the UK to make risk-based assessments when justifying licensing decisions. Today, before Parliament’s scrutiny committee, it’s likely that the Business Secretary will set out exactly what he’s done to improve the scrutiny of licensing applications. And it’s understood he will introduce a new mechanism which will put a pause on licensing applications in the event of “rapidly escalating situations” in various countries. They have also plans to put in place an independent person to scrutinise the licensing process to encourage transparency.  

It sounds as though Cable will be saying that his department has done all they can to improve practices. And Hague may also respond that the UK has learned its lessons. But Secretaries of State – don’t get carried away. There’s still a long way to go yet.

This new mechanism will only be worthwhile if it immediately stops all shipments. That includes the containers on the dockside. There’s no point the UK putting a stop on licence applications while on the same day it allows a ship filled to the brim with weapons to leave its docks. 

We’re today witnessing the bitter consequences of weapons  which have reached Syria when arguably those transfers could have been prevented long before they reached Syrian docks.

The UK is one of the world’s largest arms providers and so has a huge responsibility to ensure that the weapons, ammunition and equipment it transfers are not used to commit serious atrocities. 

Yes, the UK is right to get its own house in order when it comes to tightening up its export mechanisms. But ultimately it needs to give hearty support to the call for robust global controls on the arms trade, so that weapons are not allowed to be sent into places like Syria where there’s clear evidence of human rights violations taking place.

This evening as both Hague and Cable are scrutinised at CAEC, they must also declare their commitment to a robust arms trade treaty.

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