Friday, 13 July 2012

UK Arms Export Policy- Now and then

The Committees on Arms Export Controls has published today a report saying that the UK government should apply significantly more cautious judgements on the export of arms to authoritarian regimes which might be used for internal repression.

Taken from
The Chairman of the Committees, Sir John Stanley (who firstly became an MP a few months before the junta's fall in 1974) said:
"This is a ground breaking Report in the depth and detail of the Committees on Arms Export Controls' scrutiny of the Government’s policies on arms exports.
The Foreign Secretary in his Oral evidence to the Committee confirmed that the British Government's policy on arms exports and internal repression was as follows:
The long-standing British position is clear: We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression."

This reminded me of the situation vis-a-vis providing arms to the Greek dictatorship of the 1960s-1970s.

Recently released FCO documents reveal that during the discussions of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee on 30 January 1969 on arms policy towards Greece, it was decided that Britain ‘should in principle permit the supply to Greece of arms which she could reasonably be expected to require in order to fulfil her NATO role’ and that only the supply of those arms intended to repress the civilian population should be prohibited.

But how exactly did Whitehall handle this conundrum?

Here's how I analyse it in my forthcoming book (pp. 246-7):

Arms sales to Greece was [a] highly controversial issue-no less so due to prior complications over trade with South Africa. The Wilson government drew a distinction (similar to the one employed vis-à-vis the apartheid regime), whereby large items which could be used for NATO purposes, such as tanks, could be exported, whereas ‘light’ items, like grenades and small rifles, which could be used for internal repression could not be sold to Athens. The Labour government tried to handle this delicate and potentially explosive question in strict confidence, thus exemplifying its twofold policy of keeping relations with the Colonels on a satisfactory level and at the same time avoiding hostile criticism, especially within parliament. This ‘combination of high-minded principle and arms sales’, as one member of the Cabinet termed it, provided an impetus for attacks on Whitehall (for the most part from its left wing), which defended its choices by returning to the Leitmotif of the dismal financial situation of Britain that was in desperate need of exports, and the importance of the arms industry with regard to the jobs it provided.

FCO photo taken from
Consequently, when the Conservatives came to power, a continuation of the status quo concerning arms sales was the minimum expected. In fact, the Heath government used its predecessor’s policy as a springboard for the active promotion of sales in order to boost its trade with Greece. London made its desire to sell arms to the junta more distinct, by arranging the exchange of visits of people involved, on a variety of levels, in arms sales. Most importantly, British ministers kept reiterating their willingness to provide frigates and, after an initial numbness, even tanks to the military dictatorship in Athens, in a policy that culminated in Lord Carrington’s visit to the Greek capital. Despite Whitehall’s active policy of attracting arms deals, sales seldom materialized. FCO documents reveal that the British attributed that to the ‘Byzantine style of negotiations’ of the Greeks and their unwillingness to appear to ‘go other than American’. Greek documents show that the junta was more interested in appearing to be in negotiations with the British (in order to enhance its international respectability) than proceed with sales, for the additional reason that, in the most significant cases (such as the frigates), Athens lacked the necessary funds. Therefore, while Britain was preoccupied with supporting its arms industry and generally improving its trade in a desperate effort to reverse its financial decline, the Greeks’ main concern was to use any contracts secured for political exploitation.