Former Tory defence secretary Sir John Stanley says government quietly relaxed controls on arms licences to ‘countries of concern’
The government has been accused of dishonesty over arms sales as new figures reveal that the value of British weapons sales to “countries of concern” has already hit £60m this year. Former Tory defence minister Sir John Stanley, who chairs the Commons committees on arms export controls, says ministers failed to come clean on a “significant change in policy” that makes it easier to export arms to countries with a poor human rights record.
He said in a recent parliamentary debate that the government has not acknowledged that such a change has taken place, and it “should consider most carefully whether they should now offer an apology to the committees”.
The government used to reject arms export licences where there was concern they might be used for “internal repression”, but now a licence will be refused only if there is a “clear risk” that military equipment might be used in violation of international law.
Former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain, who established the strict criteria on arms sales, last night demanded that the government be transparent about the change and called for parliament to be allowed a vote. He said: “The present government has run a coach and horses through our arms export controls, circumventing the legislation we put in place by putting a particular spin on it. It has enabled them to sell arms to countries and for purposes that should not be allowed under the legislation.
“There is a clear policy in the legislation that arms should only be sold to countries for defensive purposes and not for internal suppression or external aggression. In the case of Gaza over the summer, that has clearly been flouted. Bahrain is another example.”
Data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reveals that in the first six months of 2014 the UK granted licences worth £63.2m of arms sales to 18 of the 28 states on its official blacklist, countries about which the Foreign Office has the “most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns”. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Central African Republic, Sri Lanka and Russia were among the countries that Britain approved military equipment for.
Saudi Arabia was the biggest beneficiary, with licences approved for more than £20m of military equipment, including hand grenades, sniper rifles, weapon nightsights and components for combat vehicles. More than £8m of arms were approved for export to Sri Lanka, including shotguns, assault rifles and ammunition. The island’s security forces have been accused of the rape and torture of detainees, and there are reports of intimidation of journalists, activists and opposition politicians, pressure on the judiciary and sectarian violence.
By the end of June, licences for £9.1m of equipment were granted to Russia, including small arms ammunition and sniper rifles, although a number are on hold because of the Ukraine crisis.
Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “By the government’s own admission, it has sold over £60m of weapons into some of the most authoritarian and war-torn countries in the world. Arms sales like these don’t just facilitate human rights abuses, they also give political support to the regimes that are carrying them out. It is totally inconsistent for the government to be talking about human rights and democracy at the same time as it is actively promoting arms sales to authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia.”
The consequences of the coalition’s support for British arms exports have been highlighted this year, with British-made teargas recently used in Hong Kong against pro-democracy protesters.
A review overseen by business secretary Vince Cable identified 12 licences for ordnance that was likely to have been used in the bombing of Gaza, but the government has refused to suspend any licences unless there is “a resumption of significant hostilities”.
The new data shows that £7m of military equipment for Israel was approved by Cable’s department in the first half of the year, including and surface-to-air missiles.
Other countries which are officially “of concern” but are still highly controversial destinations for British arms include Bahrain, which has increased its purchases of UK-approved military equipment despite a worsening of its human rights situation.
Arms sales to Egypt have also resumed, with £2.7m of sales approved during a period that saw the controversial detainment of al-Jazeera journalists. The United Arab Emirates has bought £37m of arms from the UK in 2014, including machine guns, shotguns, ammunition and weapon sights. Cable’s department recently encouraged British security and defence firms to attend a sales exhibition in the UAE that was sponsored by the Dubai police force, which is accused of torture.
Activists say Britain’s export of arms is unlikely to decline. When foreign secretary Philip Hammond was asked about British arms being used in Hong Kong, he said: “CS gas is available from large numbers of sources around the world. I think that is a rather immaterial point. They could buy CS gas from the US.”
David Lowry, independent policy consultant, said: “Surely ministers should recognise that promoting the interests of international arms dealers over regional security is counterproductive.”