Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Blood money: UK’s £12.3bn arms sales to repressive states

Government approves thousands of deals with states it condemns for human rights abuses

The Government has issued more than 3,000 export licences for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which  are on its own official list for human rights abuses.

Click image to enlarge graphic

The existence of one licence to Israel and the Occupied Territories has not been made public until today. Worth £7.7bn, it relates to cryptographic equipment, which has dual defence and civilian use.

The scale and detail of the deals emerged after a forensic investigation by a committee of MPs, who also discovered that strategically controlled items have been sent to Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Russia, Belarus and Zimbabwe – all of which feature prominently on the Foreign Office’s list of states with worrying civil rights records.

There are even three existing contracts for Syria, notwithstanding the fact that the UK is sending equipment to rebels fighting the Assad regime and is considering arming them. There are also 57 for Argentina, which is not on the list, but which remains in confrontation with Britain over the Falklands.

The Government had stated that it would not issue export licences for goods “which might be used to facilitate internal repression” or “might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts”.

However, the report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls found there were 62 licences for selling to Iran, again overwhelmingly cryptographic equipment. This also features heavily in the 271 licences for Russia, along with biotechnology equipment, sniper rifles, laser weapons systems, weapon sights and unmanned air vehicles (drones).

Both countries have been involved in large-scale supplies of weaponry to President Assad, and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been on the ground, supporting regime forces, in Syria. The committee points out that the contracts should be examined both on grounds of “internal oppression” and “prolonging regional conflicts”.

The Syrian licences are for components for four-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection, which is believed to have been for an aid organisation. But there are also hydrophone arrays, which can be used to listen underwater. The report points out that the latter have a dual use and the Government needs to confirm that it is not breaking international sanctions against Syria.

Yesterday William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, announced that hoods offering protection against chemical weapons would be sent to the Syrian rebels. There have been persistent reports of the regime using sarin nerve gas.

The suppliers to China have the largest numbers of licences, with 1,163 worth £ 1.8bn. As well as cryptographic equipment, this includes direct military communications equipment, body armour and weapons sights.

The committee urged the Government to examine whether this infringes the EU’s arms embargo on Beijing and whether it should, in fact, seek to expand the embargo  to include all military goods.

On Argentina the report is not only critical of the existing contracts, which consist mainly of cryptographic components, small arms ammunition and lasers, but the failure to press allies not to supply Buenos Aires with arms.

It states: “The committee concluded that it is reprehensible that the Government, given the relatively recent history of British ships being sunk in the Falklands War by missiles supplied by a Nato member [French Exocets], is unwilling to lobby other governments.”

The MPs noted that the Argentine Foreign Minister recently stated: “I don’t think it will take another 20 years” to retake the islands.

Only two states of 27 on the Foreign Office’s human rights list  – North Korea and South Sudan –did not have licences to their names. Among the others, Saudi Arabia has 417 licences with a value of £1.8bn; Pakistan 219 worth almost £50m; Sri Lanka 49 at £8m and Zimbabwe 46, worth just under £3m.

Sir John Stanley, the chairman of the committee and a former Defence minister, said he had decided to carry out the inquiry into arms licences after the Foreign Office began to publish its human rights reports. He added: “When I first wrote to Vince Cable [the Business Secretary] I had no idea that the figures involved would be so large – I thought someone may have added some zeros by mistake; £12bn is an absolutely huge sum. I asked Vince Cable to confirm they were accurate and, apart from a small adjustment for Iran, they all were.

“We shall continue to seek more clarification from the Government. We would like to know, for example, whether the cryptographic equipment can be used on internal dissent, and its possible military use.

“There are other, quite clear areas of concern; 600 assault rifles were sold to Sri Lanka, despite the very well documented cases of human rights abuse there. We have to ask the Government why this is the case.

“The Government needs to acknowledge that there’s an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time. Instead they continue to claim these two policies ‘are mutually reinforcing’.”