UK arms exports: getting it right at home

As UK delegates head into the final weeks of negotiations at the UN Diplomatic Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty, the Committees on Arms Export Controls Scrutiny of Arms Exports (2012) highlights the effects of domestic export decisions on the wider world and the importance of first getting it right at home.

Patricia Lewis
20 July 2012

On Friday July 13, the Committees on Arms Export Controls in the House of Commons released their first joint report, which assesses the most recent UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report (2010), the Government’s recent review of arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa and additional quarterly reports on arms exports across 2010 and 2011. As UK delegates head into the final weeks of negotiations at the UN Diplomatic Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty, the report highlights the effects of UK domestic export decisions on the wider world and the importance of first getting it right at home.

Normally, reports on the British arms trade by all-party parliamentary committees are weak compromises which - as a result of disagreements over what constitutes ‘ethical arms sales’ and human rights aspects of arms sales along with British jobs and constituency pressures - usually result in watered-down versions of otherwise strong conclusions.

Not this report however. Even though it is a report by not one but four House of Commons committees (Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development), Scrutiny of Arms Exports (2012) is hard-hitting and pulls few punches.

The Report calls for a far tougher approach by the UK Government when considering arms export licencing decisions. Human rights have to be at the centre of those decisions. The Committees concluded that, “whilst the Government’s statement that ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications’ is welcome, those considerations do not appear to have weighed sufficiently heavily on either the present Government or on its predecessor given the unprecedented scale of arms export licence revocations that the Government has made since the “Arab Spring””.  Indeed the record 158 licences revoked since the start of the Arab Spring because of human rights concerns is rightly taken as a sign that “initial judgements to approve the applications were flawed.”

The Government’s review of arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa started in February 2011, in the wake of a brutal crackdown against popular protests by security forces in Bahrain – which reportedly involved weapons from a British-supplied arsenal of crowd control weapons such as stun grenades, shotguns, crowd control ammunition and canisters of teargas. At the time, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt stated that: 

“the longstanding British position is clear: we 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.” 

However, despite the government’s stated intentions, the report highlights 600 extant licences from the UK to countries with known human rights concerns in the Middle East, including Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where abuses are notoriously on-going. It therefore calls for the Government to review its arms export policy to countries of concern worldwide where UK arms might be used to facilitate internal repression, instead of “merely [awaiting] internal repression [to become] patently clear”. 

The report’s Annexes show the importance of pre-emptive assessment, by reviewing the licences which have been revoked since January 2011 from countries such as Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt – all sites of particularly violent repressive action by state security forces.

Without exception, it shows that when reassessed, licences were revoked because they were found to be in contravention of two criteria of the UKs Consolidated Criteria for arms exports. These criteria focus on the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms and on the internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts. In assessing a recipient country, the UK Government undertakes not to issue an export licence if “there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression” and for exports that “would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination”. The Government is also bound to “exercise special caution and vigilance in issuing licences, on a case-by-case basis and taking account of the nature of the equipment, to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the UN, the Council of Europe or by the EU[…]”.  

There are therefore serious questions about the effectiveness of existing systems in place to check the responsibility of arms exports. If all revoked licences to Bahrain, for example, were based on the country’s lack of respect for human rights and prolonged conflict as a result of governmental possession of UK weapons, how did such transfers come to be licenced at all? 

In a Written Ministerial Statement to the Committees of 7 February 2012, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, stated that a new mechanism has been put in place to suspend the processing of pending licence applications by countries with rapidly deteriorating security and/or human rights risks. Suspension will be considered on a case by case basis as the situation requires and on applications for equipment or end users relevant to the situation.

This is certainly a step in the right direction towards stopping the flow of arms into areas of imminent threat to human rights and being aware of such risks in export decisions. However, such suspensions can be lifted when “the Licensing Authority considers it appropriate to do so”. Such vague criteria for the end of licencing suspension shows a need for clearer stipulation of how such decisions are made.

Irresponsible end users with records of human rights abuse and internal repression should not be eligible to receive weapons from any country. Despite Foreign Secretary William Hague stating that the review of arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa showed “that there are no fundamental flaws with the UK export licensing system”, it is clear from the number of recently revoked licenses that the judgments taken within the system are far from adequate. Indeed, the Report states that “judgments have been shown to be wildly over-optimistic and rose-tinted regarding the sale to authoritarian regimes of weapons that could be used for internal repression.” While revocations and suspensions show a willingness to improve arms export controls, the underlying processes to take decisions to export must be reviewed. As Alistair Burt himself admitted: “While we can, under certain circumstances, revoke export licences, we cannot recall equipment once exported […]” 

The report highlights a need for British arms export decisions to be based on a realistic awareness of the actions – past and potential – of countries of concern. This starts at very basic levels of recognition and transparency. For example, while giving evidence, Government representatives repeatedly used the phrase ‘crowd control goods’ to represent a range of arms that includes shotguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns, and armoured fighting vehicles. The Committees view this as a misleading portrayal of the capability of the weapons being supplied and find such terms “profoundly disrespectful to the thousands of unarmed civilians in the Arab Spring countries who have courageously demonstrated for human rights and fundamental freedoms and have put their lives at risk in doing so.”

The report comes as UK delegates take part in negotiations with UN member states towards a global Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to establish the highest possible international standards for the trading of conventional arms. The criteria of such a Treaty will aim to prevent the irresponsible transfer of weapons to actors who may use conventional arms in breach of international humanitarian and human rights law. Indeed, as 30 high-profile Oxfam and Amnesty International supporters said in a recent letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

 “Every year an average of two bullets for every person on this planet is produced. With so few global rules governing the arms trade, no one really knows where all those bullets will end up – or whose lives they will tear apart. Under the current system, there are less global controls on the sales of ammunition and guns than on bananas and bottled water. It’s a ridiculous situation. The deadly and poorly regulated trade in arms leads to serious human rights abuses, armed violence, conflict, poverty and organized crime around the world. The lack of clear binding principles governing decisions on international arms transfers combined with patchy diverse and poorly implemented national regulations are inadequate to deal with the increasingly globalised nature of the arms trade. As a result, irresponsible users are allowed to violate international humanitarian and human rights law.[1]

Given the UK’s leading role in processes leading up to the Conference, and as one of the world’s top five arms exporters, the UK has a responsibility to ensure that the Treaty’s criteria instill sufficient consideration of risks to fundamental rights in national level export decision-making processes around the world. And whatever the outcome of July’s negotiations, the UK must ensure that its own arms exports judgments are founded in exactly the same considerations of the risks that UK weapons will play a role in the breach of fundamental rights worldwide.

Both authors are in the International Security research department of Chatham House

[1] Gillian Anderson Actor, USA, Los Aterciopelados Musicians, Colombia., Harry Belafonte Singer, songwriter, actor and social activist, USA, Gael Garcia Bernal Actor, Mexico, Paul Bettany Actor, UK, Jane Birkin Actor/Singer, UK. Miguel Bose Singer, Spain, Rahul Bose Actor, India, Helena Christensen Photographer and model, Denmark, Chris Martin, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion Members of Coldplay – Rock band, UK, Jennifer Connelly Actor, USA, Paul Conroy War photographer, UK, Sophie Dahl Writer and model, UK, Kristin Davis Actor, USA, Andrea Echiverri Musician, singer and guitarist, Colombia, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs Musicians, Argentina, Livia Firth Film Producer and Eco-Age Creative Director, UK, Anjelica Huston Actor, USA, Eddie Izzard Comedian, actor and writer, UK, Bianca Jagger Chair of Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, UK, Emmanuel Jal Musician and activist, South Sudan, Scarlett Johansson Actor, USA, Angelique Kidjo Singer, Benin, Keira Knightley Actor, UK, Annie Lennox Singer/songwriter, UK, Baaba Maal Singer/musician, Senegal, Bill Nighy Actor, UK, Yoko Ono Artist, author and peace activist, Japan, Emma Pooley Olympic cyclist, UK, Tim Roth Actor and director, UK, Kevin Spacey Actor, director and producer, US, Dave Stewart Musician and record producer, UK, Imelda Staunton Actor, UK, Vivienne Westwood Fashion designer, UK


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