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A Newsnight investigation into arms sales 8/3/01
This is the story of how the British
Government agreed to an arms sale
which they thought could breach the
European Code of Conduct, the cornerstone
of their policy. To justify the deal,
they claimed the UN had given its
permission, a claim the UN denies.
In the process, Parliament has been
misled and one of Africa's forgotten
conflicts is centre-stage. It's been
called Africa's last colonial war.
When Spain pulled out of Western
Sahara 25 years ago, the Moroccans
moved in, insisting this was their
territory. But they faced a furious
attack from the Polisario, the forces
of the local Saharawi people. The
fighting ended ten years ago when
both sides agreed to a UN peace plan,
a winner-takes-all referendum to
decide what the local people wanted.
A UN mission, Minurso, was sent
out to organise that referendum, but
it still hasn't taken place. There's
growing frustration in the refugee
camps in Algeria where many of
the Saharawi people have fled.
The cease-fire is looking increasingly
precarious. But now the British
Government stands accused of
betraying these refugees and siding
with the Moroccan so-called colonisers.
They are destructive guns. The Saharawis
have been in Morocco for 25 years.
We think the effect is a very destructive
effect they will have in the Western
The story centres on a secret deal
involving guns like these.
BAE SYSTEMS ADVERTISEMENT:
The Royal Ordinance 105mm
light gun is a remarkable weapon.
In its two variants, it offers zero
risk options with unparallel speed
of deployment, simplicity in use,
fire power and reliability.
105mm light field guns, easily
transportable, with a 13-mile range.
Britain supplied 30 such guns to
Morocco back in 1977-78, made
by Royal Ordinance at a time
when the company was still owned
by the Government. The Moroccans
used them in the fighting and have
now deployed them as their main
weapon alongside the 900-mile sand
wall, the "Berm" - that they constructed
as a barrier between Western Sahara
and the Saharawi camps in Algeria.
Officially, at least, Britain has provided
no more military help to Morocco for
use in Western Sahara. The Government's
position was spelled out in 1998 by
then Foreign Office Minister Derek
"As you know, we support
the UN 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
Britain was also committed to adhere
to the EU Code Of Conduct on Arms
Exports, signed in June 1998. It sets
out Britain's obligations in clear terms.
According to Criterion Four:
"Member 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."
All that was thrown into confusion
six weeks ago, on January 30th. The
Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was
giving evidence to a select committee
on strategic export controls. The
committee was about to go into private
session when the Labour MP Tessa
Kingham asked Cook about an arms
deal with Morocco, involving those
105mm guns in Western Sahara.
I would like to speak about the
granting of £3.5 million worth of
licences to arms sales for Morocco.
And Robin Cook, apparently unaware
that he was being recorded, revealed
that Britain was "refurbishing" those
guns provided to Morocco before the
ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary gave
the impression that the deal was OK,
despite the EU Code of Conduct,
because the UN had said so.
This was a licence which was originally
refused and there was then an appeal
submitted. In between our refusal and
the hearing of the appeal, the United
Nations in Western Sahara and in New
York confirmed the refurbishment was
within the terms of the cease-fire agreement
and they were willing to supervise the
refurbishment. They assessed the project
as force neutral. On that basis, with the
full agreement of the United Nations,
we proceeded to grant the appeal.
Tessa Kingham was furious. She's a
Labour MP with a lengthy record of
fighting for the rights of the Saharawi
It matters because the Government is
supposed to have ethical guidelines for
where we sell arms and whose hands
they fall into. These guidelines clearly
state we should not be allowing the
sale of guns or equipment or refurbishment
if there's a doubt that it could be used
to enforce a territorial claim. There's
absolutely no doubt in this case because
these guns are not just going to Morocco,
which is party to a conflict in the past
about a territory, they're actually going
into the middle of the disputed territory
on the front line, on the large wall that
the Moroccans have built across this
disputed area. So it's on the front line
and it's in breach of ethical guidelines.
The story starts back in January 1998,
when Royal Ordinance, now part of
BAe Systems, applied for an export
licence to refurbish the 30 Moroccan
guns in Western Sahara and also,
according to a confidential document
we have seen, supply six new guns.
That summer the applications were
turned down, not surprisingly. Ministers
decided such a deal could breach
Criterion Four of the EU Code on
Arms Exports. But BAe appealed
and argued that refurbishment, at
least, would be allowed by the UN.
And at this stage the British began
their discussions with the UN,
discussions that, according to the
British Government, would lead in
June 1999 to the UN confirming that
refurbishment was permitted, and
that Minurso was actually willing
to supervise the process. Only last
month, the Competition and Consumer
Affairs Minister Kim Howells
underlined that the UN had given
I know very well about the process
that resulted in refurbishment of
some guns in Morocco and I
understand that it had permission
from the UN in New York.
So what went on? We came to the
UN headquarters in New York to
try to learn exactly who gave this
permission for the gun refurbishment,
and what form it took. Britain is one
of the five permanent members of
the Security Council, and has always
insisted it has acted correctly over
issues like Western Sahara, not selling
weapons to either side for use in
the conflict. Now it's accused of
breaking its own rules and hiding
behind the UN in justifying its
actions. It seems that the British
team went to considerable lengths
to obtain the agreement they sought.
According to the Foreign Office,
there were seven meetings here
between 1st February 1999 and
June 21st 1999, when the British
team finally sent a telex back to
the Foreign Office on an agreement
they said they'd reached with the
UN Department of Peace Keeping
Operations - DPKO - and with
Minurso, the UN mission in Western
Sahara. It read:
"UN Secretariat confirm refurbishment
of guns would not violate the cease-fire
agreement. The DPKO finally confirmed
on 21 June that Minurso would be allowed
to supervise the withdrawal and replacement
of Moroccan 105mm guns along the Berm."
Yet the DPKO the UN Peace-Keeping
Department say there's no paper work
to back this up, and that discussions only
took place at desk officer level. They say
refurbishment does not contravene cease-fire
agreements, but the UN did not grant
It's not a question of us giving
permission or approval, it's not
something we can do. We can
simply tell them that yes it
violates or no it doesn't violate
the agreement. That was the extent
of the information we passed on.
But the implication from the telex
they sent was that they checked with
you and it was all okay, it was very
much they had to check with you and
get permission and then that was all
right with them?
Well that's an interpretation, they certainly
checked with us, but...
But to say they got permission was a wrong
way of putting it?
There was no question of permission being
sought or given.
There are other sections of the telex
that are disputed by the UN:
"The legal department advised that
there would be no violation of the
cease-fire for the refurbishment or
replacement of the same type of
weapons or equipment as long as
Minurso's agreement was sought."
Hans Correll, the head of the UN's
legal department, told Newsnight
his department was never consulted.
According to the British telex, your
legal department advised there'd be
no violation of the cease-fire. Do you
know who in the legal department
gave that advice?
No I don't, nor do we have any recollection
of that sort of formal request being made.
So when it says your legal department,
you have no actual record of your legal
department being consulted on this at all?
No not the office of the legal advisor no.
It's all very vague isn't it? There's another
line here that DPKO confirms that Minurso
would be allowed to supervise the withdrawal
and replacement of the guns. Yes?
Er, I wouldn't use the word supervise.
That's not our function or role. Our role
would be to observe or monitor activities
within the zones to which we have access.
And there's further confusion. According
to the Foreign Office they'd already reached
a preliminary view that refurbishment was
not a violation of the cease-fire in Western
Sahara in 1998, after contacts with the UN
mission Minurso "in the region". But that's
news to Ambassador Charles Dunbar, the
UN special representative in charge of
AMBASSADOR CHARLES DUNBAR:
UN SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE 1997-1999
I had no knowledge of that until I read
about it in the Press recently that there
was a storm had broken over it.
So no-one ever approached you
from the British side or the UN
saying what do you think of this?
And if they had done, would you
have agreed that refurbishment was
within Minurso's remit?
I would have definitely asked New York
for an opinion. I of course would have
consulted with the force Commander
because these kinds of issues simply
didn't happen to come up when I was
there, that sort of issue with the military.
The UN force commander at time said
he was never consulted on the deal by
either the UN or the British. But there
was one request on refurbishment, from
the Moroccans. Despite its professed
neutrality, and despite its commitments
under the EU Code of Conduct, Britain
granted licences for the guns' refurbishment,
but not for new gun sales. The Government
defended its actions in Parliament by
claiming that the UN gave them "permission"
to license the deal - a claim the UN now
disputes. In a statement to Newsnight
today, the Foreign Office says:
export licence was at all stages considered
against the criteria of the EU Code Of
Conduct." It's the fact that the Government
thought the deal contravened the code
first time round, but not the second,
when nothing had changed, that worries
I don't see how this could fit comfortably
with the EU code of conduct on arms sales.
This is an embarrassment to Government.
I'm deeply disturbed and ashamed that my
Government has taken part in this.
What do you think is behind all this?
It's more convenient for people to keep
Morocco happy and not have the referendum
go ahead than it is for them to support,
to do their moral duty and allow this
referendum to take place. For the last
colony in Africa.
And as for the Polisario, they warn
that this refurbishment deal comes
at a dangerous time. With no referendum
after a decade, there's frustration among
the Saharawi and talk of war.
The war can resume at any time. We don't
like it. We are a small people and we now
want peace for the Saharawis, we are for
a peaceful solution. If it doesn't come, the
Saharawis have to fight for their rights.
So the guns, refurbished by Britain,
could be back in action, against the
Saharawi. Their supporters here are
already seeking a possible judicial
review on the Government's actions.
In Parliament, the Select Committee
on Strategic Export Controls is to
report on the issue. The Government's
"ethical foreign policy" is again under
We asked the Foreign Office for an interview responding to all these points, but they were unable to provide one. They did, however, issue a statement in which they said, among other things, that the UN did confirm the Government's preliminary view that "refurbishment of the guns would not be in breach of existing military arrangements" that is, the cease-fire, and it goes on to say that the UN in the area "would be in a position to monitor the refurbishment". It also points out that there is no arms embargo against Morocco.