Review fears Sri Lanka used British weapons on Tamil civilians
[TamilNet, Wednesday, 19 August 2009, 10:39 GMT]
Fears that British weapons were used against civilians in Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers have prompted calls for a review of the arms trade, British newspapers said. Four British Parliamentary committees have issued a joint report arguing that all existing licences to Sri Lanka should be investigated. Singling out Sri Lanka, Roger Berry, chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, said that arms exports to countries which had only recently ceased hostilities should be monitored because of the high risk that fighting would resume. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the UK Foreign Office told the Daily Telegraph newspaper a review of Sri Lanka was underway, adding: "the Government shares the Committees' concerns regarding military exports fuelling conflict in countries such as Sri Lanka.”
The Parliamentary committee says that while the situation in Sri Lanka made it “impossible” to know how British weapons were deployed, there were legitimate concerns that they may have been used against civilians.
“Sri Lanka highlights the need for the UK Government to monitor closely the situation in countries recently engaged in armed conflict,” Mr. Berry said.
“It must assess more carefully the risk that UK arms exports might be used by those countries in the future in a way that breaches our licensing criteria.”
Photo: Channel 4
Britain approved the sale of more than £13.6 million of weapons and military equipment to Sri Lanka during the last three years of its civil war, including armoured vehicles, machinegun components, semiautomatic pistols and ammunition.
However, Britain is legally bound by the European Union code of conduct on arms transfers, which restricts the arms trade to countries facing internal conflicts or with poor human rights records and a history of violating international law.
MPs specifically want to know which British arms were used by Sri Lankan forces in this year’s final offensive against the Tamil Tigers, in which an estimated 20,000 civilians died, The Times said.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: "As a result of the intensified fighting in Sri Lanka earlier this year, the Government launched a full review of export licensing decisions to Sri Lanka. This review is nearing completion, and the outcome will be reported to Parliament."
In the last quarter of 2008 Britain approved 21 licences for more than £1.3 million of supplies and declined two that were deemed to violate EU rules on such sales, The Times reported.
The code focuses not on the lethal potential of the weapon but on its end use. Between April last year and March 34 licences were granted for military exports to Sri Lanka.
Malcolm Bruce, a Liberal Democrat MP who visited Sri Lanka in April, told The Times of the licences: “There were too many unanswered questions. With hindsight, Britain’s sales did violate the EU code of conduct.”
MPs rejected the Government’s claim that it could not have anticipated the civilian toll in Sri Lanka, noting the dramatic increase of hostilities after the collapse of the ceasefire in 2006. Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office Minister, also argued that a British arms embargo on Sri Lanka would have prevented them attaining any leverage to press for a ceasefire.
The United States suspended all military aid and sales to Sri Lanka early last year because of concerns about worsening human rights abuses against both Tamil fighters and civilians. British MPs and activists against the arms trade said that the EU should have done the same even earlier, when the ceasefire first collapsed.
“Of course it could have been anticipated,” Mr Berry told The Times.
“Anyone who knows anything about Sri Lanka realised where things were going. We think there are enormous lessons to be learnt from Sri Lanka, to put it mildly.”