Britain sold weapons to help Sri Lankan army defeat Tamil Tigers
Britain and other EU countries sold military equipment worth millions of pounds to the Sri Lankan Government in the last three years of its bloody civil war with the Tamil Tigers, The Times has learnt.
Britain approved commercial sales of more than £13.6 million of equipment including armoured vehicles, machinegun components and semiautomatic pistols, according to official records.
Slovakia provided 10,000 rockets worth £1.1 million, while Bulgaria approved sales of guns and ammunition worth £1.75 million, according to EU documents and officials.
It is impossible to verify whether all the approved sales were delivered as the governments involved do not publish those details. Only Slovakia has confirmed delivery of the rockets.
The approval of the sales still raises the question of whether weapons from the EU were used in the last five months of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, during which UN officials estimate that 20,000 civilians were killed.
“I think we need answers about what these were used for,” said Mike Gapes, a Labour MP who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and is a member of the Committee on Arms Export Controls.
The sales were cleared despite the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which restricts transfers to countries facing internal conflicts or with poor human rights records and a history of violating international law.
They were approved while the EU called for peace talks in Sri Lanka, saying that it did not support a military solution, and expressing concerns about human rights abuses after the collapse of a 2002 ceasefire.
The US also sold Sri Lanka millions of pounds of military equipment in 2006-07 but suspended all military aid and sales early last year because of concerns about alleged rights abuses.
British MPs and MEPs, as well as activists against the arms trade, said that the EU should have done the same as early as 2006, when the ceasefire began to unravel.
“The EU had an obligation not to supply these things,” said Malcolm Bruce, a Liberal Democrat MP who visited Sri Lanka last month. “There were too many unanswered questions. With hindsight, Britain’s sales did violate the EU code of conduct.”
John Battle, a Labour MP, former Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister and now a member of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, said: “We should have been sharper off the mark and so should the EU.”
He called for an immediate suspension of EU arms sales to Sri Lanka until it lifted all restrictions on journalists and aid workers.
Several MPs and MEPs also called for the EU code of conduct, which became legally binding on December 8, to be strengthened to ensure consistency and transparency across the 27 member states.
The code says: “Member states will not allow exports which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts.” It also says that member states should “not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression”.
Until December 8, however, it was up to member states to decide whether the criteria applied to any given arms sale.
Slovakia said that its rocket deal was justified because there was no UN arms embargo on Sri Lanka, the island had a right to defend itself and the Tigers were banned in the EU as a terrorist organisation.
Britain disputed Slovakia’s position at the time but approved its own arms sales out of concern that countries, such as China, would take its place.
Arms sales approved by the British Government include:
2008 £4 million of equipment including military sonar detection items and components; components for aircraft military communications equipment and military communications equipment
2007 £1 million of equipment including ejector seats, grenades, ground vehicle military communications equipment, military parachutes
2006 £8.6 million of equipment including 50 semi-automatic pistols, components for combat aircraft, military aircraft communications equipment, armoured all-wheel-drive vehicles, components for general purpose and heavy machineguns, small arms ammunition
Source: Times research