Government approved arms sales to 20 countries on its own list of human rights abusers, say campaigners

‘We have no way of knowing what abuses these arms may fuel, or who they will be used against,’ says Campaign Against Arms Trade

Jon Sharman
Friday 21 July 2017 17:15 BST
Arms licences were granted to 20 of the 30 countries on the Foreign Office's list of human rights ‘priorities’ in 2016
Arms licences were granted to 20 of the 30 countries on the Foreign Office's list of human rights ‘priorities’ in 2016 (Reuters)

The Government has approved licences for arms deals to two-thirds of the countries on its own list of human rights abusers, a campaign group has said.

Boris Johnson's Foreign Office released its annual human rights report on Friday including a list of 30 countries, like Bahrain, China, Saudi Arabia and Israel, it had given “priority” status in 2016.

But in the same year, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said, the UK licensed £820m of arms to 20 countries on the list.

Mr Johnson said in his foreword to the report into the UK’s efforts to advance global human rights: “Promoting the values that Britain holds dear is not an optional extra, still less a vainglorious addition to our diplomacy; it is in keeping with centuries of tradition. This is part of who we are.”

CAAT's Andrew Smith told The Independent: “These are the countries where even the Government accepts that serious human rights abuses and conflicts are taking place, yet it is still pushing arms to these regimes.

“We have no way of knowing what abuses these arms may fuel, or who they will be used against.

“The Government will no doubt tell us how rigorous and robust its system supposedly is, but it is actively arming and supporting many of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.

“If [Theresa] May and her colleagues want to promote human rights and democracy then they must stop selling arms to unstable and repressive regimes.”

A Department for International Trade spokeswoman said: “The UK Government takes its defence export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.

“We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licencing criteria.

“We draw on all available information, including reports from NGOs and our overseas network, and our export licencing system allows us to respond quickly to changing facts on the ground.

“We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes and we constantly review local situations.”

The Foreign Office has also been contacted for comment.

While it is not on the list of priority countries, the Foreign Office identified Thailand's repression of political expression as a concern, adding that since the 2014 military coup, “sedition and lèse-majesté laws have been used to restrict the media, free speech and the right to protest, and harsh sentences have been applied in some instances”.

Government defence export statistics from 2015 described "notable success stories" of UK companies winning contracts there and in Malaysia, another state the Foreign Office report said was clamping down on free expression in 2016.

The UK has faced particular criticism over its sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Thousands have been killed including in air strikes by Saudi Arabia.

Last year the parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising arms exports said it was likely that British weapons had been used to violate international law.

The Saudis stand accused of bombing multiple international hospitals run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as schools, wedding parties and food factories.

Elsewhere in its report, the Foreign Office said the UK "continued to have significant human rights concerns in China".

Despite "some improvements in economic and social rights" civil and political freedoms were subject to "increasing restrictions", it said.

So-called conversion therapy, also known as "gay cure" therapy, was still widely available in the country despite UN condemnation, while ethnic and religious groups, as well as prominent bloggers, also faced crackdowns.

The Foreign Office said a particular concern was the detention without trial of human rights lawyers, adding that it had raised human rights with China's leaders "robustly and at every level".

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