Discolsure threatens to embarass Government ahead of arms treaty at G8 summit in June
By Tom Baldwin writing in TimesOnline
BRITISH military equipment was used by troops who massacred hundreds of protesters in Uzbekistan this month despite government promises that it would block arms exports to tyrannical regimes.
Photographic evidence examined by The Times shows Uzbek soldiers crouching for cover alongside armoured Land Rover Defenders as they pointed guns at unarmed demonstrators in Andijan on May 13 ? when up to 500 men, women and children were shot dead.
The disclosure threatens to cause deep embarrassment for the Government ahead of a G8 summit next month when Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will table Britain’s plans for an international arms trade treaty banning the sale of any weapons which might be used against civilians.
Labour claims that it has pioneered efforts to crack down on arms exports. Legislation passed by Parliament in 2002 is supposed to ensure that exports are prohibited to countries which fail EU standards on human rights, armed conflict and sustainable development. Uzbekistan, which the United Nations has condemned for the “systematic” use of torture, would certainly have fallen foul of these rules.
But campaign groups, along with Labour MPs such as Ann Clywd and Roger Berry, have repeatedly warned the Government that the law contains a “massive loophole” through which such regimes can still obtain British weapons.
It is believed that the armoured Land Rovers used in Andijan two weeks ago were assembled by a firm called Otokar in Turkey which has had a licence to produce the vehicles since 1987 ? a deal subsidised by the last Conservative Government. Next to the Uzbek flag on one of the vehicles photographed is a small Turkish crescent symbol. But the design and technology of the Defenders is British, as well as almost three quarters of the components, which are exported from Land Rover in Solihull.
The UK Working Group on Arms, an umbrella organisation which includes Amnesty International, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and SaferWorld, yesterday wrote to Alan Johnson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, to say the Uzbekistan massacre had realised their worst fears. One leading figure from the group said: “Before this episode came to light, the prospect of people like Islam Karimov (the Uzbek President) having access to our military equipment was only hypothetical. Now it has come true.”
They are demanding that the Government gets legally binding assurances about the “end-use” of all British-supplied equipment, as well as ensuring that UK-made components are not re-exported to another country without permission.
Paul Ingram, senior analyst with the BASIC think-tank, said: “Armoured vehicles such as the military Land Rovers used in Uzbekistan are crucial tools of oppression. The use of British technology in the killing of up to 500 unarmed demonstrators shows only too clearly that the Government has failed to grasp the nettle with licensed military production.
“It is high time they set up a licensing system for the agreements defence companies use to set up foreign production lines as tight as the licensing system for the export of the weapon systems themselves. The Government needs a stronger system of end-use controls.”
Brian Wood, from Amnesty, said: “Until we have agreed an international arms trade treaty, weapons will continue to get into the wrong hands and be used for human rights violations. The British Government is to be praised for backing the treaty; now it has a responsibility to make it a reality before more massacres are linked to British arms sales.”
The Defender, classified by the Government as a weapon, is very different from the Land Rovers sold to farmers and four-wheel-drive vehicle enthusiasts. Military specifications include reinforced body panels, bombproofed chassis, armoured plating offering high ballistic protection, bulletproof combat tyres, as well as specialist command, control and communications equipment. They can also be fitted with rotating hatches for a range of weapons including 7.62mm to .50in calibre heavy machineguns.
There is no suggestion that Land Rover has behaved illegally or improperly, while the Government has denied that any UK arms could have been used by the Uzbek security forces in the massacre. Although a handful of export licences for Land Rovers has been granted to Uzbekistan, these were either for private use or for American military in the country.
Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who contested Mr Straw’s Blackburn seat as an Independent at the election, has stated that he refused licence applications for items such as night-vision goggles.
However, Turkey has close military ties with Uzbekistan and since 2001, credible reports suggest at least 48 armoured Land Rovers have been presented to Karimov’s Government. These vehicles alone could provide transport, command and communication and support operations for a battalion of troops.
A DTI spokesman last night said: “We have, to date, uncovered no evidence to suggest that the Land Rovers pictured in the recent troubles in Uzbekistan either originated from the UK or contained UK components. If such evidence is made available we would, of course, look closely at this, and consider its implications.
“Licensed production is not specifically controlled under export control legislation, but export licence applications do specifically ask whether the goods are to be used in a licensed production facility and this is taken into consideration.”