It is now emerging that guns used by Al Shabaab in the Mpeketoni massacre may have originated from Britain.
A report tabled earlier this year in the House of Commons – the British equivalent of Kenya’s National Assembly – says 44,000 assorted weapons were shipped from UK to East Africa in a period of 15 months. The report says a chunk of the weapons got into the hands of Somali pirates. Somalia has long been identified as the source of illegal weapons entering Kenya.
After the Al Shabaab– where less than 10 men were able to take hostage the premises for four days, thanks to their superior fire-power – Kenyan security machinery has been dealing with a puzzle of just how high-grade arms get into the country. It now appears the weapons may have their origin in Britain. The report to the House of Commons was tabled by Sir John Stanley, who chairs the House committee on Arms Export Control.
In the ensuing debate on tabling of the report, British MPs expressed concern that terrorist cells may have been using UK as point of dispatch of high-grade weapons destined to Somali pirates, among other criminally bent establishments in East African region. British MPs say the masterminds of the criminal network are phoney security firms purportedly operating in the Indian Ocean coast but which cannot be verified by any authority in the UK.
What this means is that arms traffickers can register a shell security company in the UK and use it to supply arms to Al Shabaab under the guise of using the arms in anti-piracy campaign. Below are excerpts of the debate in the House of Commons Chair: We now want to turn to some quite extraordinary and surprising information that we have been highlighting in relation to the particular scale of export licence shipments granted to private security companies, supposedly for anti-piracy.
Mike Gapes (MP): Can we look at the overall situation? We have statistics on the export of various things, including 24,000 assault rifles, 2,700 combat shotguns, 9,000 rifles, 1,000 sniper rifles and 3,000 sporting guns, which have been exported supposedly under the heading of anti-piracy. That includes the export of assault rifles to Sri Lanka.
Given the concerns that we have about human rights situations in a number of the countries on the list— another is Maldives, where there has been a coup, which has been contested and the situation has been difficult since then—is it possible that these numbers conceal the fact that some of the weapons might have been diverted to purposes other than anti-piracy? Oliver Sprague (Amnesty International): It is worth stating here that it is not just the SIELs that you need to be looking at; there is also an open general export licence for the supply of ML1 and ML2 for anti-piracy operations.
I am unaware of the reporting requirements for OGELs, but I imagine that the figures do not appear in any of the annual reports. The last time I looked, over 85 UK private military security companies had registered to use the open general licence. As a general rule, we would be opposed to the idea that you could have an open general licence to allow the transfer of assault rifles and combat shotguns for private military security companies operating overseas.
It seems to be a very lax licensing regime for those sorts of activities, not least because we have long-standing concerns about the conduct of private military security companies operating overseas stemming from real concerns about accountability and oversight. We have seen from numerous examples, not just relating to anti-piracy, that there is an accountability gap. When things go wrong, what legal recourse is available to ensure that the perpetrators of atrocities are held to account?You have a situation in the UK where you have a proliferation of over 80 companies working in the realms of private security provision overseas.
What happens if there is an incident in international territorial waters? Who is going to be responsible for the outcome? What level of human rights training, combat training, do these individuals have? It seems to us that the only eligibility requirement at the moment for these licences is that you need to be signed up to the international voluntary code of conduct on private military companies.
We have long argued that a voluntary regulatory approach to something as serious as the provision of private and military security companies is wholly inadequate and that we need a legal framework and a licensing system. In general terms, we are concerned about the proliferation of the huge number of small arms and light weapons and their related ammunition for private military companies engaged in anti-piracy.
That is not to say that we do not acknowledge that piracy is a big problem, but we have long-standing concerns about the conduct and accountability of private military companies. Sir Malcolm Bruce (MP): To follow that up, if you look at the countries, what we would expect is a bit variable. Do you have any idea to whom these are being supplied? I know that it is a small place, but 12 rifles for the Seychelles, which is very much in the area, does not seem very much if they are engaged in it.
Who is buying them? As you have said, given that we are trying to restrict small arms distribution, is there not a danger that the genuine concern about piracy, and the alarms and incidents that have happened, could nevertheless be a kind of cover for saying, “Let’s get some more weapons out there”? What information do you have to suggest that the way that these have been licensed and to whom they are being licensed is being properly tracked?
Oliver Sprague: I go back to talking about the risks of the system. At the moment, we have no specific evidence of large-scale diversions taking place or of weapons being secured in unsafe facilities. The point is that we are supposed to have some of the strictest and most robust controls possible for the export of small arms and light weapons overseas, but it seems that, for anti-piracy, those rules are thrown out of the window.
It seems to us that, as long as you say that it is for anti-piracy, you are going to be given a licence. The requirement on you to prove that you are going to use them responsibly is that you adhere to some notional voluntary code of conduct, but who scrutinises the application of that code of conduct? We don’t believe that a voluntary code of conduct is sufficient to regulate private military companies, and we certainly do not think that light-touch licences should be allowed so easily.
Roy Isbister (Safer World) : To add to that, we do not know where they are going, but that links back to the transparency review and Olly’s point on the open general licence. We have no knowledge, and as far as I can tell the Government do not collect information about it, on the scale of small arms exports for anti-piracy operations that take place under the open general licence.
That is what the transparency review originally said would be the case— that we would be told at least what the quantities and the nature of the equipment exported under open general licence would be, but we do not have any information on that. Sir Malcolm Bruce (MP): Something in excess of 40,000 guns have been licensed, and we do not know where they are going or who is using them.
You are saying that we should do something about it. Roy Isbister: That is 40,000 under the standard licence. We do not know how many have gone under the open general licence. Oliver Sprague: It is certainly the case that the current reporting requirements on the open general anti-piracy licence fall well below the international standards to which the UK Government subscribe.
The international marking and tracing regime for small arms and light weapons, of which the UK was a big supporter, has a requirement to keep records for 20 years. The ATT says that records for small arms exports must be kept for a mandatory 10 years.
The reporting requirement on the OGEL is that companies are required to keep records for only four years, which is five times less than under the international agreement that we have signed up to, and it is clearly at odds with requirements under the ATT. We simply do not know what is being exported under those licences.