activism human rights

Time for clarity on arms sales to Madagascar

Last year I wrote about how Britain continued to license arms sales to Madagascar, despite its current unelected government. I’d planned to do more about it and didn’t get round to it, but a detailed update on the Tana News website this week has given me the kick up the backside that I needed and the research that I hadn’t had time to do. Building on their good work, and with some friendly advice from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, this is the letter that I’m sending to my MP today.

It’s a longer letter than I usually like to send, but it does need a little background. If you would like to something similar to your own representative, please feel free to crib from the below – and let me know if you get a reply!

Dear …..

In 2009 the elected government of Madagascar was overthrown in a military coup. President Marc Ravalomanana sought refuge in South Africa and Andry Rajoelina, a former radio DJ, appointed himself president in his stead.  In response, the African Union suspended Madagascar, and almost all international donors halted their aid programmes. Though the country has returned to a form of stability, Rajoelina has repeatedly promised and then cancelled elections, with the latest elections due in May. You may be surprised to know that despite the country being in constitutional confusion under a self-appointed president, Britain has continued to authorise arms sales to Madagascar.

Amnesty International have reported on extra-judicial killings by Madagascar’s security forces. The Small Arms Survey for 2011 reports that military personnel routinely rent out their weapons to supplement their incomes, and that there is a “complete lack of small arms stockpile management”. A UN investigation found evidence of widespread collusion between armed forces and gangs involved in the smuggling of illegal tropical hardwood. “The availability of firearms appears to be rising at an alarming rate”, says the investigation, which heard reports of armed robbery conducted with military weapons, and the presence of private militias on the island.

I’m sure you will agree that this is not a safe context for arms exports, and yet assault rifles, combat shotguns, pistols and sniper rifles have all been exported from Britain to Madagascar in 2012. Some of these sales were to a private security firm for ‘anti-piracy’ purposes. The destination of the other shipments is unknown.

As one would hope, this did reach the Arms Export Controls Committee of the House of Commons, and questions were put to the Foreign Secretary, albeit briefly. (A video of the meeting is online, the relevant section starting at 1:48:45). William Hague gave assurances that the weapons would be kept in proper arsenals, “usually with the country’s national security organisation”. Given that Madagascar’s security forces are the main problem, this is no reassurance at all.

If Britain continues to license arms sales to Madagascar, there is a risk that British made weapons are helping to prolong an illegitimate regime and support criminal activity. Since this issue has not yet been addressed with any clarity, can you write to the relevant person with the following questions?

  • What guarantees can the government offer to prove that the weapons exported to Madagascar have not been used in human rights abuses, smuggling activity, or to support an unelected government?
  • When arms are being licensed to private security companies, what investigations are carried out to establish the links between the companies and the national government?
  • One recent export license for machine guns was refused in June 2012. Does this represent a change in policy? If so, can the government make a statement guaranteeing that it is not supplying weapons to the Malagasy regime?

I would be grateful if you could raise these concerns again with members of the Arms Export Controls Committee, so that they are aware of the local context and the particular sensitivity of arms export licenses to Madagascar. Finally, would you consider bringing the matter to Douglas Alexander and the leadership of your own party?

Britain’s arms export laws are among the best in the world, but they are by no means watertight, as this example shows. If we are to lead the world in controlling arms, it is all the more important that our own trade is above reproach.

Many thanks for your time.



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