Questions are raised over the government's ties to Saudi Arabia as the extent of UK arms exports to repressive regimes is laid bare.

Tear gas cannister

The government has been asked by a cross-party group to explain why there are licences in place for the export of arms, including assault rifles, snipers, ammunition and surveillence equipment, to oppressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa

Following the Arab Spring the government conducted a "purge" of arms exports licences, revoking an "unprecedented" 158 arms export licences - proof, the report said, that the arms export system was flawed.

However, the Scrutiny of Arms Exports report by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) shows that there are still 600 existing arms exports licences in place for the sale of goods including assault weapons, ammunition, and surveillence equipment, to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

MPs asked the government to explain if it still believes these licences, which include the sale of assault rifles to Bahrain, machine guns to Egypt and vehicles with ballistic protection to Syria, do not contravene government policy on arms exports.

The government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time. Scrutiny of Arms Exports report

The report told the government that it "would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time".

Billions of arms to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, listed by the government as a "country of concern" over its human rights record, is by far the biggest customer for UK arms companies and the government has bolstered this with a large number of export licences. There are 288 licences in place for the export of arms and controlled goods to the kingdom. including for sniper rifles, machine guns, assault rifles and hand grenades.

The value of exports under existing standard military licences to Saudi Arabia as of September last year was £1.85bn. Figures from a Campaigns Against Arms Trade database of exports say that, in the last three months of 2011, arms and controlled goods exports to Saudi Arabia under UK government granted licences totalled just under £25m.

Other licences for Saudi Arabia included components for military vehicles, components for water cannons and weapon sights.

The report questioned the government's relationship with Saudi Arabia and asked it to explain whether or not it "applies different or the same considerations in deciding whether or not to approve arms export licences to Saudi Arabia".

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published a list of human rights "countries of concern" this week and many of the licences granted by the government permit arms exports to the countries on the this list.

Referring to Saudi Arabia the report references tighter restrictions on the media, the treatment of women, an "alarming rise" in the number of executions, and detention without trial as concerns.

Arms Trade Graphic

Government policy in the spotlight

Government policy on arms export licences is that it "will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression".

In response to questions on the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia over arms export licences, a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Channel 4 News: "We use the same procedure for assessing whether there is a clear risk that equipment might be used for internal repression or human rights violations with all countries, not just Saudi Arabia.

The government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes. - Scrutiny of Arms Exports report

"To help us predict future developments we look at the end user's previous record, how they have used similar equipment in the past, their general human rights record, whether we have approved similar equipment and if so whether the end user's record has changed since that approval. We assess all licence applications on a case by case basis to take into account the prevailing circumstances at the time of the application."

However, the report also questioned why, on top of the large number of export licences to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is also listed as a "priority market" for the sale of arms. Alongside Libya, the kingdom is the target for the active promotion of sale of UK arms.

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Human rights concerns

Bahrain also benefits from UK government-granted export licences. During the Arab uprising an independent report found evidence of torture and physical and psychological abuse of detainees in Bahrain.

However, there are currently 97 existing export licences to Bahrain including for shotguns and small arms ammunition.

In Egypt, the FCO raises concerns about "limits being imposed on freedom of expression", "prosecutions of bloggers and activists for criticism of the authorities", "use of unacceptable violence against peaceful protestors" and "allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of the security services."

Nevertheless, there are 124 existing export licences for Egypt.The government told Channel 4 News that some of the licences, in relation to small arms and ammunition, were being used by companies battling piracy in the Red Sea.

Libya, where the FCO raises concerns over "credible allegations of physical abuse" against detainees, can import arms from the UK via 24 licences.

Syria has licences in place for the export of armoured vehicles and cryptographic software, which can be used for accessing computer information. However, the FCO told Channel 4 News that the armoured vehicles were for transporting western diplomats around the country, and that the cryptographic software was for "civil end use".

Scrutiny of Arms Export report

Recommendations

The committee report has made a number of recommendations to the government to improve its control of arms exports.

A key area is the government addressing instances of UK-based financial institutions financing, either directly or indirectly, manufacturers of cluster bombs. The report asks the government to state how it will address this.

Details of how the government will prevent the export of surveillance technology to repressive regimes were also requested by the committee.

The government was asked by the committee to state whether or not it is satisfied that the 600 export licences are not supporting internal repression.

In a critical judgement on the arms export policies of the government to date, the report said: "The government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes 'which might be used to facilitate internal repression' in contravention of British government policy."

The report also raised concerns about an arms fair last year where cluster munitions were being promoted and called for tighter regulation of such events.

Concerns could be raised that, whilst arms may not go directly to repressive regimes, once they have entered the country it is difficult to determine their destination. However, the government argues that its checks are "rigorous".

Alistair Burt, minister for counter proliferation at the FCO, said: "The UK has a rigorous export licensing procedure. We look at each application on a case by case basis. In each case we assess the export against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. This process includes a thorough risk assessment, and regular consultation of Ministers, especially in cases involving regimes of concern of the nature highlighted by the CAEC.

"As the CAEC notes, following the Arab Spring, the Government reviewed its arms exports policy to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This resulted in additional Ministerial scrutiny of exports to those countries. As a result 158 export licences were revoked.

"However it is wrong to allege that in the run-up to the Arab Spring UK export controls were lax. When the licences in question were issued, they were properly assessed in light of the prevailing circumstances. Once the circumstances changed, the risk was reassessed and licences were revoked. This is evidence of a system that is working, not failing. There is no evidence that equipment supplied by the UK was used to facilitate internal repression during the Arab Spring."