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Britain under fire for growing arms trade

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Critics: Human rights may be jeopardized

March 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:38 p.m. EDT (1738 GMT)

From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie

LONDON (CNN) -- The Cold War may be over, but British exports of military technology are actually growing.

Officials are proud that Britain's production of weaponry and technology now puts it second only to the United States in military exports around the world.

"It's an important part of the economy," said James Arbuthnot, British defense procurement minister.

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"We have achieved exports of just over 5 billion pounds ($8 billion) in 1996, at a time when the world defense market is shrinking," he said.

But the nonprofit activist group Amnesty International says Britain shouldn't let business concerns override human rights. The group says the British government supplies repressive regimes, and loopholes in the law allow some private arms traders to broker illegal deals from London.

Tighter controls sought

"We have been involved in the export of equipment to countries like Indonesia -- to NATO allies like Turkey, for example, where torture has been very well documented; to the former Rwanda Hutu regime, the perpetrators of genocide. There have been allegations that a U.K. company was involved," said Fiona Weir of Amnesty International UK.

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"Britain also tries to supply Brazil and a number of other countries in Latin America, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Thailand -- anywhere in the world where somebody is looking to buy arms, the British government is in there trying to sell," said Will McMahon of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Arms trade opponents want tighter controls.

"The trade is shrouded in secrecy," Weir said. "The only solution is to get registers of the deals that are being licensed, to get public scrutiny by Parliament and by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)."

British officials say they scrutinize sales carefully and obey international law and embargoes. They say they want to promote regional stability.

"It's not an immoral thing of itself to provide other countries with the equipment, the high-tech equipment often that they need to defend themselves," Arbuthnot said.

But critics say the motive is not to support self-defense, but British self-interest.

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"Saudi Arabia is sitting on large amounts of oil," McMahon said. "That's why Britain sells arms there. Why does Britain sell arms to Indonesia? Britain sells arms to Indonesia because again in East Timor there is an oil field which they wish to exploit.

"The idea they are selling them for self-defense is simply ludicrous."

Arms trade critics suggest that with a dwindling military market, Britain and other arms manufacturers would do better to invest in expanding civilian industries.

 
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