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Possible ‘precursors to chemical weapons’ exported from Britain to Syria: AOAV responds

On the 10 September, 2013, Vince Cable wrote a letter to the Rt Hon Sir John Stanley MP, Chair of the Committee on Arms Export Controls.  In it, the Secretary of State detailed those times when licenses for chemicals that “can be used as precusors for chemical weapons” were granted to British companies.  These licenses permitted these possibly deadly chemicals to be exported from the UK to Syria.

The two most recent licenses that had been issued, but were later revoked, were granted on the 17 and 18 September 2012.  These were licenses for sodium fluoride (1000kg) and potassium fluoride (1000kg).  The licences were, thankfully, revoked in July 2012 following the imposition of EU sanctions and it appears that no export occurred before the revocation.

But chemical licenses have been issued by the UK government for export to Syria.  Licences for possible precusors to chemical weapons.  In total, five other licenses, all for sodium fluoride, were issued in July 2004, September 2005, March 2007, February 200 and May 2010 (for, respectively, 50kg, 2000kg, 50kg, 2000kg and 50kg).

There have been a number of possible chemical weapon attacks in Syria in recent months, claiming the lives of hundreds. Today’s report by UN weapons experts found clear chemical, medical and environmental evidence that the nerve agent sarin was used in surface-to-surface rocket attacks in Damascus on 21 August.

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In defence of Mr Cable, these licenses all pre-dated the conflict in Syria, the British government at no moment breached controls of international obligations in granting these licenses, and “there is no evidence that exports of chemicals from the UK have been deployed in Syrian weapons programmes” according to the Secretary of State.

But the fact that exports for such large quantities of chemicals that can be made into chemical weapons were granted for export to Syria as late as 2012 (despite being later revoked) surely gives cause for concern.

Concern that must, surely, be amplified when you learn that the UK government has recently decreased its planned reporting requirements for exporters.

On 31 July 2013, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced changes to its proposed reporting requirements for arms exports. These changes caused the government to backtrack from its previous explicit commitment, as announced to parliament by Secretary of State Vince Cable on 13 July 2012, to collect data on open licences which would include “a description of the items exported or transferred, the destination, value and/or quantity, and some information about the end-user”, and then to publish this data “in aggregated form, by destination”.

Instead the government downgraded its requirements to just collect and publish information on the number of times an open licence is used and on the country of destination.

Real accountability demands that the public properly understands the consequence of the government’s arms transfer control policies.  And this includes, surely, more not less transparency when it comes to the international sales of precusors of chemical weapons.