Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Arms Wrestling

Investigation into corporate arms sales

A new European agreement is set to ease the path for more corporate arms sales. And, as Solomon Hughes finds out, commercial confidentiality is being used as the government's get-out clause.

11th April 2001

The UK government is set to ratify a treaty that will undermine the Britain's existing arms export controls in the name of 'globalisation'. Defence Minister Geoff Hoon launched the treaty at a conference sponsored by the weapons-making giant Boeing, and attended by an array of top arms makers, bankers and politicians.

The 'Framework Agreement' was drawn up at last year's Farnborough Air Show, to help consolidate the European defence industry in the face of American competition. Although the Agreement includes provisions to reduce arms export licensing, it has received almost no press attention. An explicit objective of the agreement (Article 1, Section D) is to "bring closer, simplify and reduce, where appropriate, national export control procedures for Transfers and Exports of military goods and technologies".

Campaigners fear that arms makers are using this trade agreement to level down arms control laws to the lowest European common denominator. The French government is notoriously lax on weapons exports, with an arms export policy looser even than the UK's. In turn the UK is much more weapons-exporter friendly than Sweden. Unlike every other signatory nation, the UK parliament does not need to ratify the agreement, so there will be no debate or vote in the House of Commons. The agreement passed its last hurdle when the Defence Select Committee approved ratification on Feb 14. An MOD Spokesman told SQUALL that the framework agreement would be ratified "shortly". They were unable to say whether this meant days, weeks or months

Geoff Hoon gave a push to the deal at a conference organised at the end of January the Royal United Services Institute, a military think-tank. The minister's speech, which marked a rare public discussion of the Agreement, was publicised by the Ministry of Defence under the heading: "HOON WELCOMES THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT GLOBALISATION OFFERS THE UK DEFENCE INDUSTRY".

Hoon told delegates that globalisation is "absolutely irreversible and unstoppable. The new world you will be talking about today will be coming just like the dawn tomorrow, or next Christmas. There is an inevitability about these changes, We would do well not to waste our energies in wishing they were not happening".

However, far from worrying about globalisation, most of those attending the conference are enthusiastic about a free trade in arms. While the MoD did not publicise the conference backers, SQUALL has established it was sponsored by Boeing, who make Apache and Chinook helicopters, F-15 jets and much more besides. Hoon was followed by top speakers from some of the biggest weapon manufacturers in the world, including Dr Scott Harris of America's Lockheed Martin, John Howe of French arms firm Thomson-CSF, Lord Vincent of UK cluster-bomb maker Hunting Engineering , Dr Enders, Vice President of euro arms giant EADS, John Weston of BAe and Simon Frost of British hi-tech military supplier Claverham Group. The £700 a head conference also heard from the head of research from the Society of British Aerospace Companies, Kim Cohen, managing director of Deutsche Bank and Michael Portillo .

Hoon told the conference that the Framework Agreement "should play a big part in removing unnecessary barriers" to weapons exports in Europe. Under the agreement, the countries will maintain joint "lists of permitted destinations" or "white lists" for potential weapons exporters. These lists may undercut existing UK embargoes on arms exports. However, no one will be able to check on whether the 'white lists' include warmongers and tyrants because they will be secret. Before leaving the Foreign Office, Peter Hain wrote to Campaign Against the Arms Trade to try and justify this secrecy saying: "This is not a question of transparency of the export control process, but one of commercial confidentiality". Revealing where arms makers want to sell weapons, he argued, is "commercially sensitive".

In principle arms makers will have to go back to their own governments for a license when they are actually ready to export arms, but in practice it may be difficult to overrule the 'white lists'. Changing the 'white lists' themselves will be doubly difficult, firstly because they are secret, and secondly, as Hain pointed out: "The Treaty makes clear that circumstances would have changed significantly for the worse for a permitted export destination to be removed". For arms exports of goods manufactured by European consortiums, there will be a new euro arms license referred to as "Global Project Licenses". These could well undermine the relative openness of Labour's arms export report. Referring to how these new Global Project Licensees were to appear in the Arms Exports Annual Report, Hain stated: "we have not decided on each procedure to be used".

There is more information on the Framework Agreement on Campaign Against the Arms Trade website at

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