Britain blocked a $60-million sale of helicopters, armoured cars and machine guns to Swaziland, fearing the weapons could end up in Iran or be used for internal repression, according to American diplomatic cables.
The cables leaked by WikiLeaks reveal that an export licence for the deal was refused to a United Kingdom arms broker, Unionlet, which is run by a former British ministry of defence official.
Mark Ranger, the managing director, said in an interview the proposed shipment of 925 Heckler & Koch assault rifles, five heavy machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and three Bell H1U1 helicopters was intended to be used by Swaziland on African peacekeeping missions for the United Nations.
The UK government refused to grant a licence for the December 2008 purchase order. The criteria cited in the official strategic export controls document is “possible use for internal repression”, which includes concerns that weapons may be passed on to other nations.
But the despatch by Maurice Parker, the United States ambassador to Swaziland, was more direct. Parker’s UK source told him the deal had been blocked over “end-use concerns”.
Parker then set out possible destinations for the shipment. “The GKOS [Swaziland government] may have been attempting to build up domestic capability to deal with unrest, or was possibly acting as an intermediary for a third party, such as Zimbabwe or a Middle Eastern country that had cash, diamonds or goods to trade.”
Parker noted Swaziland’s foreign minister had recently completed trips to Iran and Libya and that Iran had established formal diplomatic relations with the African nation.
He suggested the armaments were excessive for African peacekeeping needs. “The array of weapons requested would not be needed for the first phases of peacekeeping, although it is possible someone tried to convince the Swazi government they were required,” he wrote.
Swaziland, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has a poor human rights record, which was criticised by the US state department in its 2009 report. Ranger dismissed US concerns that the shipment could be destined for Iran. “Do you believe anything the US says? Swaziland can barely get itself out of bed — it’s not brokering Middle Eastern arms deals. That sounds like a mischievous, ill-informed comment from a US official,” he said.
Ranger said he was not aware of meetings between the Swazi foreign minister and Iran or Libya. He said UK officials had indicated they would consider an arms sale if Swaziland completed a formal agreement with the UN about taking a peacekeeping role.
“While there is a generally held view that Swaziland has a terrible human rights record, I’m not a politician and these decisions are not for me to make,” he said.
“We are fully compliant with UK government regulations — I used to work for the UK government doing the same job I do now.” Ranger said he joined Unionlet, a company he owns with his father, after a stint at the Defence Export Services Organisation, a unit of the ministry of defence that promoted overseas arms sales. The unit was closed in 2007 after attracting the ire of arms campaigners due to its pivotal role in facilitating arms deals between BAE and Saudi Arabia.
It was replaced by the Defence and Security Organisation, based in the government’s export trade body, UK Trade and Industry.
Campaigners welcomed the revelation that the deal had been blocked. “This seems a welcome, but rare, case where the UK government has exercised its discretion by refusing to sell arms to a known human rights abuser,” said a spokesperson for Campaign against Arms Trade.
Unionlet is also an authorised broker of precision high-powered rifles to Libya, Tunisia and Georgia on behalf of UK manufacturer Accuracy International. Last year the total value of controlled exports from the UK to Libya was £214,8-million and to Tunisia £4,5-million. – Guardian News & Media 2011