The Government has taken exception to a new Commons report on arms export controls, which recommended that it should tighten up rules on weapons sales to authoritarian regimes. MPs said it was somewhat hypocritical to lecture dictators like Colonel Gaddafi on human rights abuses, while simultaneously flogging them all the requisite kit, and that labelling weapons like sniper rifles as “crowd control” items for export purposes was not only misleading, but “profoundly disrespectful” to pro-democracy campaigners killed during the Arab Spring.
Not so, according to Foreign Office minister, Alastair Burt, who says that all such exports licences pre-Arab Spring were subject to strict vetting procedures, and that where the “circumstances changed”, such licences were revoked. Besides, he adds, “there is no evidence that equipment supplied by the UK was used to facilitate internal repression during the Arab Spring.”
On that last note, he may be technically correct. But in the case of Libya, that is only because technical problems prevented the equipment being ready in time. As documents f0und by The Sunday Telegraph in Tripoli revealed last September, Britain approved an £85 million contract for General Dynamics UK to provide a centralised command system for Libya’s Khamis Brigade, an elite armoured unit named after and headed by Gaddafi’s feared fifth son. Based on a similar system that GD UK installed for the British army, it was just the sort of thing that might prove handy during the chaos of suppressing a widespread civilian insurrection.
But despite the contract having the personal blessing of Tony Blair, who soothed its passage during his infamous “tent deal” with the Libyan leader in 2007, it all then went sour. The Libyans accused GD UK of falling behind with the work; GD UK, meanwhile, insisted the Libyans were failing to provide them with the right technical details. As a result, when the Libyan uprising started early last year, it was some way off being completed.
The question, though, is not just about what extra carnage Khamis might have wreaked had the system been in place by then (his brigades still led the siege of Misrata, and are believed to have executed at least 45 prisoners at a warehouse in Tripoli on Aug 23). Instead, it is about just what convinced the British government that it was right to provide such stuff in the first place. After all, should the very name “Khamis Brigade” not have suggested it was clearly a private household militia? Yes, you could argue that this is no different from having, say, the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment, but our royals stopped wielding operational command of private units back in the Middle Ages. In the modern era, governments which believe their armies are there to protect the wider public do not generally name their units after the ruler’s son, much less put him in control.
Surely, someone within HMG should have realised that if there was ever a revolt in Libya – as was always possible under someone like Gaddafi – the chances of such an outfit remaining neutral were always going to be limited?
When we ran this story last year, I put these questions to the United Kingdom Trade and Industry Defence and Security Organisation (DSO), the body responsible for promoting British arms exports (in which capacity, they also personally invited Khamis to the Queen’s Birthday party at the British Embassy in 2010). Needless, to say, I didn’t get very far, beyond the usual stock response that the DSO “did not export equipment where there is a clear risk it could be used for internal repression”.
True, hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, and yes, it was widely thought at the time that Gaddafi had changed since his Mad Dog days of the 1980s (despite his massacre of some 1,200 people during the Abu Salim prison revolt in 1996). Perhaps, though, the future criteria for exporting weapons to regimes with chequered records needs to be more forward-looking than backward-looking. We need a little less focus on how they behave while entrenched, and a bit more focus on how they might respond should their power start to crumble.