“Selling weapons isn’t just something you do for economic reasons,” says Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the UK group Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT). “When you sell weapons, what you are doing is giving political support to the government you are dealing with and how those weapons are used.”
Such support in this case amounts to British endorsement of Israel’s military campaign against Gaza last summer, a bombardment which, given current UK weapons deals, may have involved the use of British weapons on Palestinians. What with the now undeniable evidence of mass civilian casualties in the wake of the Israeli assault, the British government initially had a fight on its hands as activists tightened the noose on whether such weapons sales were even legal under European Union law.
In August of last year the UK government gained the attention of both CAAT and the law firm Leigh Day, which demanded that Vincent Cable, in his capacity as the UK Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, fully investigate the legality of arms sales to Israel.
“The public is rightfully shocked by the bombardment that has been taking place and the UK needs to take responsibility by revoking all current (arms export) licenses,” said Smith of CAAT. “It should announce a full embargo on all arms sales to Israel as well as an end to all military-industrial collaboration with Israel.”
According to material obtained by The Independent, a total of 130 UK weapon manufacturers share 42 million pounds worth of armament deals with Israel. Israeli sources hold that Britain currently delivers components related to small arms equipment and ammunition, as well as items necessary for the construction and maintenance of the Merkava series of battle tank and the Hermes class armed drone. In the case of the latter, IDF officials have been quoted as claiming that the Hermes constitutes the “backbone” of their reconnaissance and targeting efforts, with the unmanned vehicle seeing extensive use in Operation Protective Edge.
At least seven million pounds worth of such material is believed to have been approved for export just six months prior to the onset of Protective Edge. This is thought to include high-power anti-armor munitions, components for sniper rifles and, again according to The Independent, “high-power RF weapon systems”, constituting “energy ray weapons which can be used for purposes from air defence to disabling cars.”
Yet it’s the possible use of such weapons last summer that has proven particularly controversial when it came to apparent breaches of International Humanitarian Law. While IDF spokesmen were quick to attempt to explain away apparent mishaps when it came to collateral damage and civilian deaths, members of the International Committee of the Red Cross claimed to have witnessed the deliberate destruction of civilian targets, including “repeated bombing” that was “devastating Gaza’s fragile water infrastructure” in particular.
Such actions constitute a direct violation of Article 54 of Additional Protocol One to the Geneva Conventions, where attacks on “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” including “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works” are overtly illegal.
European Union legislation clearly stipulates that arms export deals must take into account the likelihood of weapons being used in violation of international law, as well as the human rights record of the purchasing nation.
When around one hundred thousand pro-Palestinian protesters swarmed the streets of London in August of 2014, the British government seemed taken aback in the face of the changing public mood, and appeared to be in the process announcing a review of existing weapon export licenses.
Yet as of August 16th the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was reported to be considering prohibiting just a fraction of current export licenses only in the event of a breach of the then existing ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. When hostilities recommenced, British weapons exports remained untouched.
“The government was saying that they were merely monitoring the situation to see if the surge in conflict constituted a state of ‘significant hostilities’ which may have prompted a further review of their arms sales,” said Andrew Smith in an interview with Toward Freedom. “This just shows the government may try to avoid suspending anything if they can get away with it.”
CAAT’s subsequent legal challenge caused little concern with government sources.
“We submitted in writing a demand that the government stop what they were doing and fully investigate their sales to Israel,” said Rosa Curling, a solicitor with the human rights department of Leigh Day. “We essentially received a negative reply when it came to CAAT’s concerns. They [the British state] believe they are right in what they are doing and are going to fight over this.”
Britain is bound by the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports specifically as well as the subsequent 2008 Common Position. A total of eight criteria are thus mandatory for EU states which an arms exporting nation, such as Britain, is obligated to take into account, including “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” alongside “international humanitarian law” and the “behavior of the buyer country with regard to the international community.”
Yet does EU law have much traction in the UK, and is it plausible that British domestic law may take precedence when it comes to who the government chooses to do business with?
“There is that ‘Euroskeptic’ tradition in UK politics where certain people would love to see Britain make an exit from the EU,” said Rosa. “But European law is British law, there’s no way the government could argue otherwise if it came to a protracted fight through the courts.”
After a series of claims and counter-claims betweeen the government and Leigh Day, however, a representative of the Treasury Solicitor, Ellen Richardson, announced via a letter last November of an impending review of at least some of the UK’s munitions exports to Israel. CAAT subsequently decided to abandon their action, citing information that the Foreign Secretary had allegedly assessed that there had been “no clear risk” of British weapons being used in violation of International Humanitarian Law. Although how this conclusion was arrived at is not known, CAAT maintains that their decision to give up their case was due to there being “little chance of success” if “the proper procedures had been followed” and that “this shows, yet again, that a change in policy, rather than the rules, is needed.”
Indeed, despite the seemingly ethical policies in place to prevent weapons ending up in the wrong hands, several prominent European powers are all the same major exporters of military hardware. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank focusing on global conflict and arms sales, EU powers such as France, Britain, Germany and Italy currently rank fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh respectively in world rankings for net exports of armaments.
“What you have to remember with the European Union is it’s made up of nation states that are in the business of selling weapons themselves,” explains Smith. “EU legislation has a problem in that often these things are drafted with the participation of arms trading countries. If it were the case that European nations only exported weapons to countries with a healthy human rights record then the arms trade would be very much impacted.”
A quick look at some of the customers for British weapons in particular gives credit to Smith’s concerns. According to CAAT’s own database, in addition to Israel, UK armaments currently find themselves in the hands of other governments with dubious attitudes toward human rights, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China and Iran being prime recipients of British hardware.
“We know, for example, that British-made gas has been used in Egypt against protesters and that British equipment was used by Saudi Arabia when they went into Bahrain to put down protests in 2011,” says Smith. “The government always talks about human rights and democracy, but sells weapons to human rights abusing governments on a daily basis. In the case of the British weapons that are still being sold to Israel it really just highlights how flimsy our arms export laws really are.”
Dan Read is a freelance journalist with a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights. He is based in Britain.Twitter: @DanRead2