British arm sales and human rights abuses

Flickr/Defence Images

Research by: Phillip Baker, Sam Fletcher, Jonathan Parker, Josh Kneale and Abi Simons.

British arm sales will be subject to an inquiry by a cross party committee, as well as a high court challenge by the European Union, to see whether UK sales break EU arms export laws. Of particular concern are British arm sales to Saudi Arabia, who is currently the UK’s largest weapons consumer, and their use against Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, in an attempt to push back rebels supported by Iran who have taken control of the capital, Sana’a. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) says that bodies including the UN panel of experts, the European parliament and humanitarian NGOs, have all found that Saudi Arabia has failed to comply with international humanitarian law to take all precautions to prevent civilian harm.

Andrew Smith from CAAT has said: ​“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.”

It seems that the British government is ignoring its strict criteria on arms sales in order to benefit from increasing profits. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as of 2008, Britain became one of the world’s leading developers of arms through BAE Systems and in 2014 the UK ranked 3rd in the top 100 arms-producing and military services companies.

It isn’t just Britain’s sales to Saudi Arabia which has been criticised but data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills revealed 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, including Israel, the Central African Republic, Sri Lanka and Russia. The UK has even granted six licenses worth £180,000 to sell teargas to Hong Kong which was used against civilians during pro-democracy protests in 2014.

The European Parliament recently voted in favour of an EU-wide ban on arms being sold to Saudi Arabia, because of its heavy aerial bombing of Yemen, which has been condemned by the UN. The vote does not force EU member states to comply but it increases pressure on national governments to re-examine their relationships with Saudi Arabia.

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s arms controls director, has said:

“Mr Cameron should stop acting as a cheerleader for BAE’s reckless arms sales and stop the flow of weapons to the Saudi war machine, pending the outcome of both a UN inquiry into the bloody conflict in Yemen and the UK’s own review of its arms exports to Saudi Arabia.”

There does not seem to be any sign of the government restricting its arm sales anytime soon however, especially with the upcoming Home Office-sponsored defence fair in Farnborough, which will be held behind closed doors and hidden from the public. The list, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that police and security personnel from 79 countries are expected to attend the event. They include delegations from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, countries whose human rights records are controversial to say the least.

The big question is why the British government is supplying these weapons that are being used to bring chaos and destruction to innocent people’s lives and the only answer I can think of is because they can. Yemen is a forgotten war and fails to get the attention it deserves. This means the government can get away with supplying these weapons with very little press coverage or public criticism. It is also difficult for the public to know what really goes on behind closed doors, as events like Farnborough are so secretive.

Although the government continues to deny that they have breached any international law the evidence against this is slowly piling up. In an age of terrorism and extremism our government’s continued support of Saudi Arabia could be argued to be irresponsible, as Owen Jones stated:

“The assault on Yemen is not only killing, maiming and inflicting mass suffering. It is also building up bitterness. With our government fully behind its Saudi allies, resentment towards Britain is surely growing, resentment that can be all too easily manipulated by extremists.”

Hopefully this inquiry will result in continued pressure from international bodies and the public, in order to try and stop our government’s irresponsible arm sales and put human rights first.

This post was written in collaboration with The Richardson Institute.

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