Comments on the 1997 Annual Report on Strategic Export Controls

15 Apr 1999
April 1999

1. For many years TAPOL has been concerned that British military equipment exported to Indonesia has been directly involved in violations of human rights and has strengthened a military regime engaged in international aggression against East Timor. TAPOL has called for, and continues to call for, a complete ban on all arms exports to Indonesia.

2. In relation to Indonesia, the Annual Report shows that, between 2 May 1997 and 31 December 1997, the Government issued 34 Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs) for ‘Goods on the Military List’, 5 SIELs for ‘Other goods’ and 1 SIEL for ‘Military List and other goods’. The goods covered were:

  ‘communications equipment, aircraft spares, military helmets, aircraft machine gun spares, air defence alerting device [temporary licence], communications encryption equipment, naval electronics, radar spares, electrical components, body armour, air defence missile spares, pilot displays and components, electronic equipment, aircraft simulator, spares for aircraft engines, aircraft braking parachutes, communications equipment [temporary licence], protective forensic equipment [ML7], military simulator’ (p. 49).  

3. The Report also shows that between 1 January 1997 and 31 December 1997, 23 ‘Armoured Combat Vehicles’ and four ‘Combat Aircraft’ worth in total £112.49 million were delivered to Indonesia (p. 113). TAPOL assumes (although the Report is deficient in failing to make this clear) that these deliveries related to licences granted by the Conservative administration for Alvis and Tactica armoured vehicles in December 1996 and to a licence for the export of 24 Hawk aircraft announced in December 1995 (a further 16 Hawks, licensed by the Conservatives in November 1996, are due to be delivered as from April 1999).

4. TAPOL is deeply concerned that export controls remain weighted in favour of granting licences.[See footnote 1.] The Government has once again stressed its commitment to a strong defence industry without mentioning the need to reduce and eventually eliminate arms exports for the sake of human rights, security and economic development.

5. Last year, the Trade and Industry Committee of the House of Commons concluded that the licencing criteria introduced by the Government in July 1997 ‘...represent a rather less radical break with past policy than is sometimes represented to be the case.[2] In terms of Indonesia, there is no evidence in the Annual Report or otherwise to suggest that the Committee erred in its conclusion. On the contrary, arms exports to Indonesia are continuing at roughly the same rate as before May 1997.

6. The Annual Report is supposed to improve the transparency and accountability of decisions on export licences for arms. For the reasons set out below, TAPOL believes it has largely failed in that respect.

I. TRANSPARENCY

7. A fundamental problem concerns the excessive delay in the publication of the Report. It can hardly improve transparency when it relates to a period over a year before it was published. As a result of this delay, the sections of the Report concerning Indonesia actually contain less information than was already in the public domain. Thanks to the diligent questioning of certain MPs, information about licences granted for Indonesia to the end of December 1998 is set out in a series of parliamentary written answers. They show that for the period 2 May 1997 to 31 December 1998 a total of 92 licences (76 SIELs and 16 open individual export licences) were granted.[3] In 1998, 41 SIELs were granted and only one was refused. The 1998 licences included two with the ML1 rating (small arms, including rifles, revolvers, pistols, machine guns and accessories) and one with the ML3 rating (ammunition).[4]

8. The list in the Annual Report of goods covered by the 1997 licences is of limited use since it hides more than it reveals. It does not specify the exact nature of the equipment, the number of items covered by each licence nor the value of the equipment. A single licence can cover hundreds of items of equipment worth millions of pounds and a simple generic description of the equipment can be almost meaningless. The references to ‘communications equipment’, ‘electrical components’ and ‘electronic equipment’ are particularly opaque. The list falls far short of the Trade and Industry Committee’s requirement that parliament should have ‘the greatest possible access to the details of decisions taken...'[5]

9. The Indonesian military is currently attempting to undermine the peace process in East Timor by arming and sponsoring a murderous reign of terror by para-militaries. It is clear that the Indonesian Government is powerless to control certain hard-line elements in the military, which is also committing yet more atrocities in the province of Aceh, and implementing a ‘shoot-on-sight’ policy throughout the country to curb unrest. There is no guarantee that British ‘communications equipment’, small arms and other equipment are not being used in these repressive operations. Ministers have acknowledged that previously-exported equipment has been used for internal repression since Labour came to power.[6] There is also evidence that British-supplied armoured vehicles are being used in East Timor (see below). This month’s delivery of the first of the sixteen Hawk aircraft licenced in November 1996 has coincided with East Timorese leaders repeating their calls for a halt to arms sales to the Indonesian military.

10. TAPOL is pleased to note the Annual Report acknowledges the Government’s power to revoke licences (p. 20). Ministers have sometimes given the misleading impression that they have no such power. Questioned in The Timor Conspiracy, broadcast on ITV on 26 January 1999, about the Government’s decision to allow the delivery of the sixteen Hawk aircraft, Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett stated: ‘...we had no power to stop the licences, the legal advice that we had was that we had no power to revoke the licences...’. The power to revoke licences is set out clearly in the Export of Goods (Control) Order 1994. For reasons which have never been explained - beyond the evasive assertion that it would not be ‘realistic or practical to revoke licences that were valid and in force at the time of our election’ - the Government has refused to exercise that power. Transparency would be considerably improved if the Government was more frank about its reasons for not revoking this licence and others inherited from the Conservatives.

II. ACCOUNTABILITY

11. The way in which the Annual Report was published casts doubt on the Government’s commitment to greater openness and accountability. After many months delay, the Report was finally brought out, without notice, on a day when the media’s attention was almost entirely on the Kosovo crisis. NGOs were given little chance to respond on the day in a meaningful way.

12. The delay in the publication of licensing decisions is a serious impediment to proper accountability. TAPOL remains of the view that the Government should introduce procedures for prior parliamentary and public inspection of licence applications. The publication of an out-of-date annual report is entirely unsatisfactory and allows no real opportunity for concerned parties to challenge questionable applications or decisions.

13. In its Report on Strategic Exports, the Trade and Industry Committee gave the misleading impression that the option of seeking judicial review is freely available to third parties:

  ‘The right sought by some voluntary bodies for third parties to be able to appeal against grant of a licence has not been ceded, to their chagrin: but, as the 1998 White Paper observes, there is always the possibility of seeking a judicial review of export licensing decisions’[7]  

In practice under this administration, it is not possible for third parties to seek judicial review of decisions to grant licences since decisions are not publicised at the time they are made.

14. By contrast, those applying for licences have ‘two bites of the cherry’ if they wish to challenge a decision to refuse a licence. They can appeal against the decision and they can seek judicial review. This is not indicative of a balanced and properly accountable system.

15. If the Government will not permit prior scrutiny of applications, then it should at the very least publicise licensing decisions immediately after they have been made. The Conservative administration adopted a practice of announcing, through parliamentary written answers, details of certain controversial licences, such as those relating to the Hawk aircraft. If controversial licences can be publicised, there is no reason why all licences cannot be publicised. This would at least allow for licences to be challenged politically and by judicial review.

III. END-USE MONITORING

16. TAPOL remains unconvinced about the Government’s commitment to post-export monitoring and verification. There is a particular problem with equipment exported under previous administrations, for which the Government has attempted to avoid responsibility. Questioned recently about evidence that Alvis armoured vehicles were being used in used in East Timor,[8] Mr Fatchett stated that the equipment in question was exported in the 1960s and that no formal mechanisms exist for monitoring equipment once it has been exported.[9] This is a serious defect in the system since monitoring is essential to prevent previously-exported equipment contributing to human rights abuses and to ensure that officials can make a thorough risk-assessment at the licensing stage.

17. Indonesia has given repeated assurances that British equipment will not be used for internal repression and that certain equipment will not be used in East Timor. Irrespective of which British administration licensed the export of the equipment, the government of the day has a duty to monitor its use to ensure it is not used in breach of such assurances.

April 1999

Notes

  1. TAPOL’s concerns about the current UK arms export licensing system were set out in its comments on the White Paper on Strategic Export Controls and its submission to the Trade and Industry Committee of the House of Commons (see Report on Strategic Export Controls, 1998-99, HC 65, Ev. p. 100).
  2. Report on Strategic Exports Controls, 1998-99, HC 65, p. xvii, para. 28.
  3. Hansard (Commons) 2 December 1997, cols. 124-25, 8 April 1998, col. 345, 3 June 1998, col. 227, and 1 February 1999, col. 502.
  4. Hansard (Commons) 9 February 1999, col. 203.
  5. Report on Strategic Exports, p. xiv, para. 21.
  6. On 14 May 1998, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook acknowledged on the Today programme on BBC radio that some of the equipment (water cannon and armoured vehilces) used against pro-democracy activists demonstrating for the removal of President Suharto was sold from Britain (see Amnesty International Human Rights Audit 1998, pp. 57-58). On 14 December 1998, Minister of State Derek Fatchett stated that: ‘We have received reports that some of the military equipment deployed by the Indonesian armed forces during the civil unrest in Indonesia on 13 (‘Black Friday’) and 14 November was UK supplied (Hansard (Commons), 14 Dec. 1998, col. 399). Earlier he had said: ‘Whilst accepting that some of the military equipment deployed by the Indonesian armed forces was British, I stand by my position on defence sales...’ (letter to TAPOL, 26 Nov. 1998). More than a dozen people were killed as a result of the unrest and military intervention.
  7. Report on Strategic Exports, p. xxix, para 66.
  8. Interviewed on The Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4 on 20 January, Col. Halim, the defence attaché to the Indonesian embassy in London stated that the Indonesian army is using Alvis Saracen and Saladin armoured vehicles in East Timor.
  9. Hansard (Commons), 1 February 1999, cols. 515-16 and 3 February 1999, cols. 682-83.