UK government gives green light to more tear gas sales to US police despite UN warning over violence

Rubber bullets and tear gas among British exports to US security forces 

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 29 July 2020 17:06
Federal security forces during a demonstration in Portland
Federal security forces during a demonstration in Portland

The UK government has given the green light for the export of British tear gas and rubber bullets to the US despite the continuing use of force against protesters and warnings from the United Nations.

Whitehall officials secretly suspended the issue of new arms export licences to the US for a month at the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations so a review could be carried out amid concerns about police conduct, The Independent can reveal.

But the review, which the government has refused to make public or comment on, concluded that the violence did not amount to "internal repression".

US police have used gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters and also targeted journalists since the beginning of the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Detention of protesters by unidentified federal officers in Portland, Oregon, sparked condemnation last week from Liz Throssell, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who warned the actions could give rise to human rights violations.

More than 70 journalists – including The Independent's chief US correspondent Andrew Buncombe – have also been arrested during the protests. The Independent has launched its Journalism Is Not A Crime campaign to highlight press freedom in the face of the crackdown in the US.

Commenting on the British decision to allow supply of tear gas and rubber bullets, Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said: "Over recent months we have seen US police forces inflicting brutal and often indiscriminate violence against protesters. For the UK government to claim that this isn't repression is staggering. It is also hugely disrespectful of the rights of those that have been attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons.

"These weapons can be deadly and should not have been sold in the first place, especially not to forces that have a long and shameful history of racism and violence. This decision is not just an endorsement of US policing, it is a sign of support for the brutal techniques that have been used."

In private legal correspondence dating from 30 June, seen by The Independent, government lawyers said a review was underway and that "no pending or new licence applications for the export of crowd control equipment to the USA will be issued until the reassessment has been completed".

British arms companies currently have 23 open export licences for the export of riot equipment to US security forces, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot shields, prompting criticism that they are fuelling "brutal" violence by the police.

But the issuing of new licences resumed this weekend after the government gave arms exporters a clean bill of health. Government lawyers said in a second letter dated on Friday that it was "a matter of fact" that the use of riot equipment "has attracted criticism from some quarters".

"Given the broad list of end-users covered by the licences, the reassessment has assumed that it is possible that such equipment was and/or could be sold to and used by police forces involved in these or similar protests," the Government Legal Department said.

But they said a review found that "there is no clear risk under Criterion 2a of the Consolidated Criteria that such equipment might be used for internal repression; and not to suspend, amend or revoke existing licences; and to recommence the assessment of pending licence applications".

The same government department that reviewed the arms exports recently recommended the resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, advising ministers that "possible" war crimes in Yemen were "isolated incidents" and should not disrupt the flow of arms. The government's own rules say arms should not be exported if they can be used for "internal repression".

The private letters were written by the Government's Legal Department in response to a legal challenge against the arms sales, to evidence the claim that the government was taking its responsibilities seriously.

The challenge, which is being crowd-funded by hundreds of small donors, will now go ahead and aim to stop the exports in the courts.

A cross-party group of MPs has previously called for an end to the sales, and the Scottish Parliament has endorsed a motion along similar lines. Human rights organisations like Amnesty have also joined the call.

Mr Smith added: "We hope that the case being pursued by [lawyers] Deighton Pierce Glynn and their client succeeds and that it helps in setting an important precedent and securing change."

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s Military, Security and Police Programme Director, said: “We’ve seen these temporary ‘suspensions’ and behind-closed-doors ‘reviews’ before - and they always seem to end up with a full resumption of arms sales.

“At the very least, officials should explain how they’ve apparently reached the conclusion that UK-manufactured tear gas or rubber bullets can safely be sent to US police departments without the risk of them being used against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters.

“Coming after the scandal of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, this is another sign that the UK’s arms export licensing system is unfit for purpose. We urgently need a root-and-branch overhaul of the entire arms export system, and meanwhile all policing and security equipment exports intended for US police forces should be stop immediately - with all existing licences cancelled.”

A Department for International Trade spokesperson declined to answer question about the review and pausing of arms sales and 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.”

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