WESTERN SAHARA CAMPAIGN UK
Leeds LS1 3AX
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14 March 2001
In a report published today by the Quadripartite Select Committee on arms exports, it is revealed that former Foreign Office minister Geoff Hoon licenced the refurbishment of thirty 105mm howitzers along 1000 mile Moroccan wall in occupied Western Sahara
The parliamentary committee criticised the ministers for approving the licence on appeal when they had already twice refused the licence on the grounds that it contravenes the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, a cornerstone of the Government's "ethical foreign policy."
Criterion 4 of the Code states:
"Members states will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim"
Taking note of the EU Code of Conduct, the Select Committee concluded that "Ministers could and should have turned down" the licence.
Morocco brutally invaded Western Sahara in 1975, forcing most Saharawi people to flee the barren desert of neighbouring Algeria. Today 165, 000 Saharawi refugees are waiting to return home to their country to participate in a UN referendum on the sovereignty of Western Sahara. MINURSO, the UN referendum mission in Western Sahara has repeatedly postponed the vote because of Moroccan attempts to gerrymander the process.
Britain does not recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. According to the Committee's report, Derek Fatchett MP, the then Foreign Office minister responsible for Western Sahara twice rejected the licence application deeming it a breach of the EU Code. In a letter to the Campaign of 7 September 1998 he wrote:
"When considering Export Licence Applications to Morocco, the situation in the Western Sahara is an over-riding concern. As you know we support the United Nations in their efforts to achieve a resolution of the dispute through a free and fair Referendum. We would not be able to reconcile this objective with supporting one side or the other be it via the export of arms or through some other channel."
Ministers and officials, including former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain MP, have repeatedly told the Campaign that they have not issued any arms licence for Western Sahara. It is probable that the Government did not expect this information to be disclosed, as it appears Cook read from his private notes in the public session of this Select Committee.
In his testimony to the Select Committee on 30 January, Robin Cook said that the arms manufacturer appealed to the Government. Cook argued that the "United Nations in both Western Sahara and New York confirmed the refurbishment was within the terms of the [UN] cease-fire agreement and that they were willing to supervise the refurbishment of the weapons."
However, in its report the Select Committee attacked the Government, stating that "it is for UK ministers and not the UN Secretariat to decide arms export licences." The Western Sahara Campaign believes this was an attempt by the Government to hide the fact that they had broken the EU Code of Conduct.
More damaging, BBC Newsnight has learnt that the UN did not give "permission" for the arms licence, as the Government told Parliament. UN Spokesperson David Wimhurst told Newsnight "there was no question of permission being sought or given" and denied offering to supervise the refurbishment of the guns.
A UN Special Representative, UN head of the Legal Department, UN Military Commander were all quoted on Newsnight saying that they had not been consulted, as the Government later claimed.
According to Royal Ordnance, the guns being refurbished have a range of seventeen kilometres and fire twelve rounds per minute. The licence was valued at £1.5 million by BBC Newsnight. Another £2 million worth of weapons was licenced to Morocco in 1999. Given the Government's failure to live up to its promise, the Western Sahara Campaign is now seriously concerned that other weapons licenced for Morocco may have been used in Western Sahara.
Jane's Intelligence Review* reports that Morocco spends $2million dollars every day on its armed occupation of Western Sahara. Jane's estimates Morocco has stationed over 100, 000 soldiers along the wall. The Western Sahara Campaign believes this work, if undertaken, would make a significant difference to the Moroccan military capability.
Acccording to a UN spokesperson, Royal Ordnance has yet to undertake the refurbishment of the howitzers nearly two years after the licence was finally granted. Moreover, export licences normally on last for two years.Western Sahara Campaign questions why Foreign Office officials held seven meetings with United Nations officials in an attempt to gain their "permission" for the licence when the work has still to be carried out.
In the light of the Select Committee rebuke, the Western Sahara Campaign calls on the Government to revoke the licence.
Ironically, ministers claimed they took the decision to grant the licence fearing a Judicial Review from Royal Ordnance. However, they may be facing a Judicial Review from WOW Campaigns Ltd, the sister organisation of development group War on Want.
Richard Stanforth of the Western Sahara Campaign says he cannot "understand how the then minister Geoff Hoon MP signed an arms exports licence which will enable occupying Moroccan forces to fire on refugees. It is a travesty and we call for his immediate resignation." The Campaign believes that if the Foreign Office had put as much time and effort into supporting the UN Peace Plan, then the people of Western Sahara would now be independent. In 2000, Britain's trade with Morocco increased by twenty per cent to $1.2 billion. Richard Stanforth said "It appears that British trade is more important to the Foreign Office than basic human rights or indeed the Government's own policy."
Over 50 Members of Parliament, including members of the Quadripartite Select Committee, have signed Early Day Motion 313 deploring the Government's actions and calling for an end to all British arms exports to Morocco until the Saharawi people can vote on their independence.
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