17 Jul 2013

UK approves arms sales to human rights abusers

MPs and Amnesty International raise concerns over the UK’s approval of export licences for the sale of arms, worth over £12bn, to countries with questionable human rights records, including Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan soldier cleans a gun on top of a tank in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Of the 27 nations on the Foreign Office list of countries of human rights concern, just two did not have a valid arms export licence: North Korea and South Sudan.

Three licences remain valid for Syria, despite William Hague’s pledge to send medical equipment to rebels fighting against President Assad’s regime.

The government should apply significantly more cautious judgments when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes – CAEC chairman

Chairman of the influential Commons committees on arms export controls (CAEC), Sir John Stanley, said the scale of sales to these countries highlighted the conflict between the government’s stated human rights policies and its arms exports.

Other countries the UK has approved the sale of arms to include Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Belarus – the only European country which still executes people – and Sri Lanka, which Amnesty International said in April was “criminalising dissent” and systematically violating human rights.

The countries for which the largest numbers of licences have been issued include China with 1,163 individual licences worth £1.4bn and Saudi Arabia with 417 licences and a value of £1.8bn. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories had been issued with 381 licences and a value of £7.8bn.

The CAEC said the numbers of export licences for the sale of arms and other military equipment was “surprisingly large” and said that the government only carries out minimal checks on who it grants licences to.

Call for explanation

Sir John Stanley said: “The government should apply significantly more cautious judgments when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes ‘which might be used to facilitate internal repression’ in contravention of the government’s stated policy.

Amnesty International echoed his concerns and the organisation’s arms control expert Oliver Sprague called for urgent action.

“What is needed now is an urgent explanation of what these licences were actually for, who was going to use them and what assurances were in place to ensure they were not going to be used for human rights violations,” said Mr Sprague. “Until there is much greater transparency over exactly what we are selling and to whom, it will be impossible for parliament or the public to have confidence in the UK’s arms sales policies.”

Read more: Is Britain arming oppressive regimes in the Middle East?


Labour MP Richard Burden, who chairs the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group, said that over half of the total sum goes to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“Look a little closer and you see that almost all of those exports are going to Israel, with only £5,539 going to the Occupied Territories,” he said. “However, £7,765,450,000 of the £7.8bn worth of equipment exported to Israel is covered by just one licence approval – for equipment employing cryptography and software for equipment employing cryptography.

“This is bizarre.”

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: “An export licence would not be granted where we assess there is a clear risk the goods might be used for internal repression, provoke or prolong conflict within a country, be used aggressively against another country or risk our national security.

“All licences highlighted in the committee’s’ report were fully assessed against a range of internationally agreed stringent criteria which take into account the circumstances at the time the licence application was made.”


Some of the committee’s strongest criticism was of the government’s “reprehensible” failure to lobby other countries to follow its lead in imposing tighter controls on exports to Argentina, despite recent claims by Argentine foreign minister Hector Timerman that it would not take “another 20 years” for them to regain control of the Falklands.

The CAEC is made up of the the Commons Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Business, Innovation and Skills committees.