Revealed: how Britain is selling weapons to the most unstable places on earth

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Britain is selling arms to nearly 50 countries where major ethnic conflicts and civil wars are brewing.

Britain is selling arms to nearly 50 countries where major ethnic conflicts and civil wars are brewing.

The extent of these sales worth hundreds of millions of pounds, to countries on the brink of war, were disclosed as the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, arrived in Pakistan yesterday in a bid to avert war with India over Kashmir. He was snubbed by President Pervez Musharraf, who claims he is biased towards India.

Under its "ethical" foreign policy the Government bans arms sales to countries already at war, but instead British arms manufacturers actively target countries where ethnic conflict is likely to explode.

Britain sold arms worth tens of millions of pounds to India and Pakistan last year, before the Kashmir crisis reached boiling point. But Kashmir is only one of dozens of civil wars and ethnic conflicts around the world where there is a risk of mass killings of minorities and which threaten to destabilise neighbouring countries and create new humanitarian disasters.

Many of these flashpoints where British arms and military supplies are sold are well known and include countries such as Israel, Indonesia and the Russian Federation. Yet many other conflicts in central Africa, central Asia and the Caucasus are rarely reported.

These flashpoints include the oil-rich Cabindan enclave in Angola, and threats against the minority Kikuyu and Luo peoples in Kenya. In Ukraine, relations between the Crimean Tartars and ethnic Russians are deteriorating. In other areas, such as the Kabylia region of Algeria, the current risk of conflict follows decades of state repression.

The latest figures in the Government's annual arms sales report disclose that the Government licensed British companies to sell £343m-worth of fighter aircraft, firearms, armoured vehicles, explosives, ammunition and a vast range of military components to the 10 countries where the risk of ethnic conflict is greatest.

Sales to nine of those countries – Israel, India, Russia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Algeria and Pakistan – were dwarfed by the £179m-worth of weapons and equipment sold to Turkey last year, up from £34m in 2000.

Despite its impending membership of the European Union, Turkey has been accused by Amnesty International of suppressing its Kurdish minority population, and of sustained persecution of orthodox Muslim groups, left-wing opponents and human rights activists.

Arms deals also sharply increased with Israel and Pakistan, despite their conflicts over Palestine and Kashmir. Exports to Israel nearly doubled, from £12.5m to £22.5m, and with Pakistan they leapt from £6m to £14m. Sales to Saudi Arabia reached £20.5m last year.

British policy has changed significantly in some regions. New figures reveal that Britain has, for the first time, given sweeping export licences for several central Asian states which are involved in internal conflicts and human rights abuses.

Three former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, were each given 32 "open" export licences in December allowing them to buy potentially unlimited amounts of arms. Sales worth more than £4m have already been approved, and others are expected to follow.

Amnesty International says all three countries have imprisoned, tortured and executed Islamic fundamen- talists, ethnic minority leaders and activists in secular opposition parties. Minority groups under threat include those in the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan, and Uzbeks and Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan.

Similar fears are raised about domestic Muslim groups in Russian-controlled Chechnya and Ingushetia, the southern Caucasus, and by the Chinese in Xinjiang. Despite global concerns about China's human rights record, Britain sold China £32m of military and security equipment last year, and £17m-worth to Russia.

"These licences would allow potentially vast quantities of arms to be exported to one of the most unstable regions in the world," said Andy McLean, of the foreign affairs think-tank Saferworld. "We are concerned that the desire to support our allies in the 'war on terrorism' is overriding the UK's commitments not to export weapons that may be used to carry out human rights abuses or undermine stability."

Influential foreign affairs institutes, United Nations officials and government-funded projects are attempting to predict where the next Kosovo or Kashmir-style conflict might erupt, or to prevent a repeat of the ethnic genocide in Rwanda. As Tony Blair himself admitted during a tour of Africa earlier this year: "We cannot ignore these conflicts because sooner or later they end up on your doorstep."

After the international community's failure to prevent disasters such as Rwanda, "early warning" systems are much more sophisticated. Support is also mounting within the UN for a special representative on minorities to prevent ethnic conflict, but that idea is not yet supported by Britain, partly on the grounds of cost.

Meanwhile, claim anti-arms trade campaigners, Britain's growing military exports, which totalled about £5bn last year, are threatening to fuel a series of regional conflicts.

"Shipping arms to around 130 countries may be good for British arms companies financially, but it's a nightmare for the rest of us ethically, as we try to create an image of being a force for good," said Richard Bengali, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

The arms and human rights campaigners do, however, agree with one remark by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, at the height of the Kashmir crisis. "I hate to fuss at folks, I really do, but we live in a dangerous and untidy world," he said.

Mark Lattimer is director of Minority Rights Group International

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