Arms Trade Politics in the UK

This Wednesday in the UK, the Committee on Arms Export Controls will hear from several government officials about the enforcement of export control laws. The session, something akin to a Congressional oversight hearing in the United States, is part of an ongoing effort to link the weapons trade to human rights and select issues around the world. Someone in the government is wasting no time attempting to set the tone.

For example, one Labor MP interviewed Sunday by the Independent explained that the “process of looking at the cumulative number of weapons and whether those exports fitted the scenario on the ground needed for protection” in various global hotspots is of concern. In the same story, an unnamed Committee source added that “they want to know why British firms would need such a large stash of fresh guns, given that they will have had thousands of weapons in their armoury prior to April 2012.”

Over here in the United States the Congress rarely, if ever, asks a gun maker or executive branch official about a weapon inventory or attempt to tie the amount of guns exported to a human right issue. Policymakers here tend to check bad acts that arise from the unlawful export of controlled items and, if needed, amend laws and regulations. Human rights are one of many issues considered. The closest thing we’ve had in recent years that comes close to the UK oversight model in this field is the Leahy Amendment process, yet even with these cases the bad acts, not the arms, tend to be the focus of the investigations.

In the UK, the recent hearing will likely focus on allegations that UK weapons have become the weapon of choice for Somali pirates. The arms seem to have been exported legally to places like Russia or South Africa, and then ended up in the hands of Somalis. Judging solely from the story and how the UK export control system is set up, the issue is not the number of guns. The problem is farther down the supply chain, with third parties, not with UK arms makers, dealers, or the Conservative party.

Most of the time these sessions have little to do with genuine export controls oversight. Rather, MPs use export controls to attack the foreign policy of the government in power. This is especially true when it comes to the Middle East and dealings with Israel. Could Labor be trying to create a Fast and Furious-like political sideshow for the Tories? Judging from past Committee hearings and this odd focus on the number of weapons stashed for future use, it would seem so.

More information on the hearing available here.

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