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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 23:14 GMT
Criticism over arms licence
Robin Cook
Robin Cook faces criticism over his ethical foreign policy
The government is facing fresh criticism of its foreign policy following confirmation that a British firm won a licence to refurbish Moroccan weapons stationed in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the contract was given approval because the United Nations said it did not damage the cease-fire in force in the region.

We are very concerned that the UK government is endorsing arms exports from the UK to a disputed territory

War on Want
But the deal was greeted with alarm by human rights campaigners, who questioned how it squared with New Labour's commitment to bring an ethical dimension to British foreign policy.

The government's own guidelines ban sales of weapons and spare parts where they might be used for internal repression or external aggression.

Anti-poverty group War on Want said: "We are very concerned that the UK government is endorsing arms exports from the UK to a disputed territory."

And Conservative foreign affairs spokesman Francis Maude said: "This news exposes Labour's threadbare claim to have an ethical foreign policy.

Francis Maude
Francis Maude attacked Labour
"They say one thing but do another."

There are between 80,000 and 100,000 Moroccan troops are deployed in Western Sahara.

The North African country has been engaged in a decade-long conflict with the Polisario Front independence movement.

The conflict remains unresolved, despite a UN-brokered ceasefire which has been in effect since 1991.

A Foreign Office spokesman said that in 1998, a British company - which he would not name - put in an application for a licence to sell parts for 30 guns.

Initial refusal

Although the application was initially refused because it would break rules on arms exports the company involved appealed.

That appeal was made on the grounds that the sale would be consistent with the UN mandate.

The UN then confirmed that such refurbishments were permitted, and that their peacekeeping force in the region would supervise the refurbishment process.

UN advice accepted

"We accepted the UN advice and granted the licence," the spokesman said.

On Wednesday, Mr Cook told a joint meeting of the House of Commons foreign affairs, defence, trade and industry and international development committees that the Western Sahara process had a "very well established and mandated UN presence".

"I think if they had resisted the application, we would have, on appeal, upheld our own refusal," he said.

"But the ground for our refusal was rather removed by the UN removing any objection to it."

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See also:

11 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Ethical foreign policy row
18 Sep 00 | UK Politics
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25 Jul 00 | UK Politics
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22 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Scott attacks arms trade reform failure
20 Jul 00 | UK Politics
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