The government is being urged to suspend the sales of British tear gas, rubber bullets and riot shields to the United States amid fears they are being used against civil rights protesters.
The US has been rocked by angry demonstrations for nearly a week following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died pleading for air while a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for eight minutes.
The police response, apparently endorsed by president Donald Trump, has seen security forces ramming crowds with cars, deploying gas and baton rounds against peaceful demonstrators, and arresting and shooting at domestic and international journalists covering events.
Government records show it grants export licences worth millions of pounds for the sale of anti-crowd gas, riot equipment, so-called “rubber bullets” and other small arms to the US – but the government’s own rules say such exports should not go ahead where they are likely to be used for “internal repression”.
Human rights campaigners said Britain’s laws obliged it to “freeze” the export of “all policing and security equipment” to the US where it could be misused.
But the government has in the past been reticent to cross Mr Trump because it is seeking an agreement with the US to replace the favourable terms of trade with Europe lost after the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s military, security and police programme director, said: “After the shocking images of the police and national guard using excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, the UK should immediately freeze all policing and security equipment export licences to the US where there’s a clear risk of further misuse – something the UK is obliged to do under its own laws.
“Given the evidence emerging from numerous US cities, there’s a very real risk of UK-manufactured tear gas or rubber bullets being used against George Floyd protesters in dangerous and highly inappropriate ways – something that ministers need to respond to.
“Ministers should be making detailed, case-by-case assessments of any requests for equipment from individual US police forces – withholding exports from any that have clearly acted irresponsibly during the current crisis.
“The UK has a dreadful track record of looking the other way when UK arms and security equipment is misused overseas, even, in some cases, seeking to justify such misuse. Now is the time to start changing that.”
Siana Bangura of Campaign Against The Arms Trade told The Independent there needed to be a full investigation into whether British weapons were being used and that US police forces “have shown they cannot be trusted”.
“The horrific scenes of police violence in Minnesota and across the US must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. And so must the escalation from Donald Trump and his colleagues,” she said.
“We’re always being told about the influence Boris Johnson supposedly has with the White House. If that’s the case then such influence must be used to call for structural change, rather than continuing to remain silent in the face of police brutality and repression. Black lives have been viewed as disposable and black bodies seen as property for centuries in the USA and the UK. Compounded by the injustice and disproportional impact of the Covid-19 on black communities at this time, enough is enough.
“There must be a full investigation to see if any UK-made weapons have been used in these abuses by police. The US police forces have shown that they cannot be trusted to uphold the rights of protesters or black people, so all arms sales must be stopped.”
She added: “Unfortunately the issue of police brutality and racism is not a new one, and is not exclusive to the US. Violence against black people is a tale hundreds of years old, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others being reflective of the immunity that far too many police officers feel when they are carrying out their abuses.”
The action against the US would not be unprecedented: the UK and EU have for around a decade banned the export of drugs used in lethal injections to the United States, a move which has reportedly led to a shortage for and derailed the American capital punishment system.
The ongoing protests are the latest outbreak of anger on the issue of racist policing in the US and the disproportionate targeting of black Americans by officers – as well as the apparent impunity of the American security services.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade, which regulates arms sales, told The Independent: “The government will not grant an export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with the Consolidated Criteria.
“The Consolidated Criteria provide a thorough risk assessment framework – they require us to think hard about the possible impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. These are not decisions we take lightly.”
Downing Street has described the situation, including incidents of journalists being injured, as “very concerning”.
“The violence we have seen in the US over recent days is clearly very alarming,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
“People must be allowed to protest peacefully. As the foreign secretary said yesterday, the footage of George Floyd’s death is deeply distressing and our thoughts are with all those who have been affected.”
The spokesperson added: “Journalists all around the world must be free to do their job and to hold authority to account without fear of arrest or violence.”
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