Excl: Thornberry vows to put arms export decisions under independent control

Sienna Rodgers

Labour leadership candidate Emily Thornberry has announced in a LabourList article today that she would remove decisions over arms exports from political control and transfer responsibility for them to an independent body.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary has revealed that if elected to the top job as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, she would introduce a ‘Robin Cook Act’ – named after the late MP and former Foreign Secretary who resigned over the Iraq war in 2003.

The piece of legislation – named after the Labour politician whom Thornberry has described as an early “mentor” – would put the process of awarding arms export licenses into the hands of an independent panel of experts.

The reformed system would be based on the 1997 model crafted by New Labour in government when then-Chancellor Gordon Brown made the Bank of England independent and gave it responsibility for setting interest rates.

LabourList understands that the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, who has held Labour’s foreign affairs brief since June 2016, wanted to set out this policy at the party’s 2017 conference but it was not approved by the leader’s office.

Setting out her policy idea, Thornberry has written that she would aim for “permanent reform of the arms export regime” and put decisions relating to the arms trade “in the hands of a panel of independent legal experts who care only about compliance with international law”.

Under her plan, these experts would be “interviewed and appointed not by ministers, but by the cross-party Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls”, and “required to explain publicly their decisions every month”.

The Committees on Arms Export Controls in parliament is made up of four select committees – business and enterprise; defence; foreign affairs; international development – which work together to scrutinise the UK’s arms exports.

Official figures revealed last summer that the UK is the world’s second largest arms exporter, and sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other countries in the Middle East comprised almost 80% of its 2018 exports worth £14bn in total.

The court of appeal also ruled in June that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful, which meant that Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox and other key ministers had illegally signed off arms exports.

According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought and won the legal case, the UK has licensed £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi forces since the war in Yemen began in March 2015. The conflict has killed over 100,000 people.

Thornberry is the only one of the Labour leadership or deputy leadership candidates who has yet to secure their place on the ballot paper. She needs nominations from 15 more local parties to be in the final round.

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