HC Deb 23 July 2002 vol 389 cc839-42
10. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

If he will make a statement on Government policy on arms sales to Israel via a third country. [69586]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

All export licence applications for items to be exported to Israel via an intermediate country are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated European Union and national arms export licensing criteria in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time and taking account of other relevant factors. Licence applications for goods where it is understood that they are to be incorporated into products for onward export are assessed as described in my written reply of 8 July to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping).

Ann Clwyd

Given that the Israeli defence force has admitted using more weapons and munitions against the Palestinians in the month of April alone than it did in the whole of the previous 10 years, what possible justification can there be for selling any more arms to Israel?

Mr. Straw

While I understand my hon. Friend's point of view, I do not share it. All countries have a right to defend themselves and that is made explicit by the European Union and national criteria. These are extremely difficult decisions. I had to think long and hard, as did my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Trade and Industry, who are also involved in making the decisions. They are difficult, but I am satisfied that the decisions that we made are consistent with the EU and national criteria.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Following the killing of children in a targeted attack yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary summon the Israeli ambassador and tell him that he believes that that uncivilised conduct does nothing but harm to a country that many of us hold in real affection and high regard, which we want to see survive as a thriving, prosperous, independent, protected nation, but which is not conducting itself quite as we expect it to at the moment?

Mr. Straw

I am making arrangements for the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to speak to the ambassador this afternoon. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's views, which I think that the whole House shares, about the unjustified and disproportionate nature of the attack and its consequences are conveyed to the ambassador and, through him, to the Israeli Government.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Israel is entitled to defend itself from attack and that it has a specific right to defend its citizens, at least 1 million of whom are currently at threat from rockets supplied by Iran through Syria, which are ready to be fired from Israel's northern borders on its civilian population?

Mr. Straw

As I said a moment ago, I accept the right of any country, under the UN charter. to act in self-defence. Such self-defence has to be proportionate and to take account of other circumstances. That goes without saying. On the specific issue of arms exports, I say again that if my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Members read the criteria, they will see that they are a complex matrix of criteria that seek to balance some very difficult and often conflicting issues.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Might I ask the Foreign Secretary to consider a specific instance? If the pilot of the F-16 that fired the missile which did such terrible damage and caused so many casualties in Gaza yesterday had been using, as he may be able to in 2003, a head-up display manufactured by a British company and

licensed for export by the United Kingdom Government, would the Foreign Secretary have considered the export of that component to be consistent with Government policy?

Mr. Straw

We are still getting further information about, as it were, which F-16 was used in the attack, but the contract between British Aerospace and Lockheed Martin for the supply of head-up displays is of long standing. So it is perfectly possible—I do not happen to know—that such equipment, licensed by previous Administrations or indeed by this Administration, was incorporated in that equipment.

Of course, I share the belief around the whole House about the unacceptable nature of the attack, but there are other issues involved in the licensing decisions that we have to make, particularly when there is incorporation into a third country's products. Particularly over the past five years, all defence industries have become much more transnational—in our case, transatlantic—and what we are doing is part of a transatlantic assembly line.

Other EU countries face exactly the same dilemma. So far as we have been able to ascertain—their information is confidential on the whole, while ours is fully public—they have acted in a very similar way. At heart, there is on the one hand concern to avoid the kind of thing that happened this morning. On the other, countries have a clear right in international law to act in self-defence, not only against other nation states but against terrorism. In addition, we as a nation have taken a strategic decision to have a defence industry. It necessarily follows that, in properly controlled circumstances, that defence industry must be allowed to export.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

When a 150 sq m, two-storey apartment block is hit by a missile from an F-16 killing 15 people and nine children, how is it acceptable that British equipment could be supplied for that through a third party, whereas it would not be acceptable if we did it directly?

Mr. Straw

The issue is more complicated than that. The equipment appears to have been misused in this case, but if my hon. Friend looks carefully at the criteria, he will find, first, that we have applied the criteria and, secondly, that the criteria seek to take account, under criterion 7, of the capability of the recipient country to exert effective export controls. It so happens that the Quadripartite Committee itself said that the United States' conventional arms transfer policy does not appear to differ in any important way from the EU Code or the UK national criteria. In some respects … it is an improvement". Although in a particular instance the United States may come to a slightly different decision from us or the EU, the fact is that its arms control policy and the exercise of it are, on any basis, at least as transparent and as effective as the United Kingdom's, and certainly more transparent than that of almost all of our European Union partners.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Given that, last year, direct arms sales to Israel almost doubled from £12.5 million to £22.5 million, and in the light of atrocities such as that which occurred yesterday, how can the right hon. Gentleman, sincere as he no doubt is, be expected to be taken as an honest broker in the middle east peace process?

Mr. Straw

Interestingly enough—although, of course, this is a matter of grave concern—the suggestion that we do not have a role to play in the middle east because we supply arms is not one that has been raised with me by any interlocutor in the middle east. On the issue of arms sales to Israel, it is true that the number of licences has increased, but so has the number of refusals. While, altogether, there were six refusals of specific licences in 2000, there were 31 refusals of specific licences last year.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent proposal by the Israeli Government to deport forcibly the families of suspected Palestinian militants from the west bank to Gaza will result in further escalation of violence rather than improvement in peace and security?

Mr. Straw

What I would say is that violence is never justified, but I regard the threat of deportation, still more the reality, as wholly unjustified. Yesterday, I ensured that that word, "unjustified", was inserted into the General Affairs Council's conclusions when we discussed the middle east.

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