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 You are in: Special Report: 1998: 05/98: Arms to Africa row  
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Arms to Africa row Tuesday, 17 November, 1998, 19:55 GMT
Foreign Office accused of 'total failure'
Kerr on the rack over embargo
Sir John Kerr on the rack over embargo
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Foreign Office officials have been accused of a "total failure" in the handling of the arms-to-Africa affair.

The attack came as the powerful foreign affairs committee of MPs cross examined top diplomat Sir John Kerr for the fifth time on the breaking of the weapons embargo on Sierra Leone earlier this year.

Officials and ministers have already been cleared by an independent inquiry of conniving in the breaking of the sanctions by mercenary group Sandline International.

But High Commissioner Peter Penfold was found to have given the illegal arms shipment "a degree of approval".

He has insisted he believed the UN sanctions only applied to the military junta in the country and not the democratic government-in-exile which ministers wanted re-established in power.

Mislead MPs

And, during the latest session of the committee, MPs claimed foreign office officials had totally failed in their duty to inform Mr Penfold that the embargo applied to the entire country, not just the junta.

MPs: officials failed in their duty
MPs: officials failed in their duty
They were also accused of allowing ministers to mislead MPs by suggesting the embargo only applied to the junta.

Sir John said he accepted Mr Penfold's claim that he had not realised the sanctions applied to the whole country, but said it was his duty to find out what the precise legal standing was.

"He said he did not know, and I accept that. I am saying he should have made it his business to find out," he said.

And he reminded the MPs that Mr Penfold had been in London, in the Foreign Office, at the time the embargo was made and where he would have picked up relevant papers. He also made it plain Mr Penfold had been reprimanded for his alleged mistake.

Penfold unaware of ban
Penfold unaware of ban
"I am confident Mr Penfold has learned lessons from this experience. It's a point I have put to him with some force and I am sure he will act on them," he said.

But committee member Sir John Stanley demanded: "Do you not accept that, as permanent secretary, the first and over riding duty to inform ambassadors about the legality lies with officials in London?"

Failure of officials

And he said it was clear there had been a "100% failure by your department" to inform Mr Penfold about the precise nature of the embargo.

And he claimed foreign office officials were announcing the embargo applied to the junta and failing to mention it also applied to all other groups in the country.

"Was it not a total failure of your officials to make it clear to him the legal ambit of the sanctions order was totally different to the line publicly being taken by the foreign office?

Sir John Kerr accepted it was officials' duty to keep ambassadors informed but said the circumstances were different because Mr Penfold was in the foreign office at the relevant time.

See also:

05 Nov 98 | Arms to Africa row
10 Nov 98 | Arms to Africa row
Links to more Arms to Africa row stories are at the foot of the page.


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