Exporting to countries under sanctions and embargos is ‘systematic failure to consider human rights records’
British ministers and officials have approved the sale of arms to nearly four-fifths of countries subject to arms embargos, trade sanctions or other restrictions over the past five years, according to analysis.
The UK has exported military hardware to 58 countries of the 73 listed as subject to restrictions by the Department for International Trade (DIT), including sniper rifles to Pakistan, assault rifles to Kenya and naval equipment to China.
The exports are legal but researchers with the group that compiled the report, Action on Armed Violence, said they represented “a systemic failure to consider the human rights record of states before exporting weapons to them”.
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Countries covered by sanctions range from a handful where all arms sales are banned to a larger group covered by transit controls, where a special licence is required, for political, security or human rights reasons.
Five countries listed by the trade department as key export markets for British arms makers: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also feature on the Foreign Office’s latest list of 30 “human rights priority countries”, although not all are subject to sanctions.
The report’s author, Murray Jones, of Action on Armed Violence, said his research – which reviewed UK export records between January 2015 and June 2020 – “demonstrates the frailty of the UK’s commitment to human rights abroad”.
Licences have been granted to export aircraft parts, riot shields and hundreds of sniper rifles to Pakistan, including 630 in 2016 and a further 20 in 2019, despite the Foreign Office warning in November of “increased pressure on civic space and freedom of expression” in the country, including threats to minorities.
The sale of 3,000 assault rifles to Kenya for £9.45m was authorised in 2017, although security forces in the African country were accused by Amnesty International the year before of carrying out “enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture with impunity, killing at least 122 people”.
An export licence covering £290,000 of gun sights was granted to supply police in Nigeria in the early part of 2020, a year in which dozens of people were killed by security forces during widespread protests about police corruption relating to the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars).
Britain has authorised millions in sales of arms to China, mostly military radar equipment for the country’s fast growing navy, now the world’s largest. Licences worth £16.2m were granted for radar components in 2015 and a further £4.15m in 2018, according to official records.
The Asian superpower has long been accused of engaging in the suppression of its Uighur Muslim minority in the west of the country, and the UK increasingly regards its navy as a strategic threat amid fears that Chinese warships could even sail around the north of Russia to enter the Atlantic.
Details of the arms exports approved were extracted from public records published by the trade department, but the researchers said they came with little supporting justification, making it hard to see what their ultimate purpose was.
“If any of these exports are justifiable, the licences are so opaque that an independent examiner simply cannot know what’s going on. The government shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt just because they fail to be transparent,” Jones said.
A government spokesperson said: “The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”
The spokesman added that the UK “has a history of championing human rights around the world and regularly calls out governments which fail to uphold them”.