I bet you never thought that one of the duties of a Foreign Minister is to act as an arms dealer for private companies to dodgy governments, or that Royal Navy warships act as floating sales offices for arms-deals. But last June, Hugo Swire MP, a Foreign Office Minister, had a week-long trip to Latin America, which included a stop at Colombia to act as an official weapons salesman for arms firm BAE Systems.
The meeting – part of which took place on a Royal Navy ship – was revealed earlier this year. Full details of the event were supplied to me last month under Freedom of Information.
As far as the ethics of selling arms to Colombia goes, they're not great. According to Amnesty International, Colombia has suffered a "45-year-old internal armed conflict. Leftist guerrillas fight the state and illegal right-wing paramilitary organisations, which often collaborate with sectors of the Colombian armed forces." As Amnesty notes, "All of the parties to the conflict are responsible for human rights violations". The Colombian Navy have been involved in such abuses as well as the army. This July, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos sacked the heads of the army, navy and air force following a report from Human Rights watch about Colombian armed forces complicity in extra judicial killings. Despite these problems, Britain has no official bar on selling weapons to Colombia.
There were no such worries on the menu when Hugo Swire arrived in the beautiful city of Cartagena on the northern coast of Colombia and had "dinner at restaurant in the historic walled city with representatives from BAE Systems and the Colombian Navy". The Minister's date included a "walk" through the "historic old city".
BAE Systems wanted to sell "Ocean Patrol Vessels" to the Colombian Navy. These are "90 metre versatile and affordable ships" made to work along the coast. BAE emphasise their use in anti-drug trade missions. The ships have a flight deck suitable for a "medium-sized helicopter" which is capable of engaging in warfare as well as drug trade interdiction.
It isn't just the Minister acting as a salesman for BAE: The Royal Navy got in on the act too. HMS Portland, one of the Navy's frigates was on a three-day visit to Colombia last June. The papers released to me describe this as "defence cooperation". The Royal Navy itself put out a press release about the ship celebrating "Armed Forces Day while on a brief visit to the Colombian port of Cartagena" at the time. As well as British sailors taking part in the pomp and ceremony, and the HMS Portland crew playing a football game against the Colombian crew of the ARC Caldas, the warship was acting as a floating sales office for an arms-trade party.
The documents say the ship was there for "defence and security exports". With help from the UK's government run arms sales unit, called "UK Trade and Industry Defence & Security Organisation", Hugo Swire used the ship to push the proposed deal. In the papers released to me, The British Ambassador to Colombia, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby says, "the visiting HMS Portland gave a spectacular setting for an evening reception for senior members of the Colombian navy and defence ministry". At the meeting, "The minister highlighted a proposal by BAE Systems to supply Ocean Patrol Vessels to the Colombian Navy".
There is a long history of British Minister's pushing arms sales. Most famously Mrs Thatcher saw this as a key part of her job: Thatcher called it "Batting for Britain", and made great personal effort to promote the massive Al Yamamah arms deals with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s – a deal which also involved BAE Systems. However, from the 1990s onwards the huge problems of corruption in Al Yamamah and other arms deals encouraged to Government ministers to take a lower profile in promoting individual arms sales. The government has remained involved in arms trade promotion through the Defence Sales Organisation, renamed the Defence and Security Organisation. However, Ministers themselves have tended to have a more subtle approach to directly flogging weapons. During the Blair years, Labour were a bit tied up between Tony's love of doing business and Foreign Minister Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy".
It looks like that the newly confident Conservatives are abandoning any subtlety and going for a more direct approach.
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