George Floyd protests: UK opposition parties urge Boris Johnson to suspend export of arms and riot gear to Donald Trump's US

Labour says UK should not sell arms to US 'at a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of black civilians'

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
@joncstone
Tuesday 02 June 2020 20:36
comments
George Floyd protesters met with violence from police across US

Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to suspend the export of British arms and riot gear to the United States after opposition parties backed a call from human rights groups to intervene.

Labour's shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said it would be a "disgrace" for the UK keep supplying American security forces "at a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of black civilians".

In a letter to her government counterpart Liz Truss seen by The Independent, Ms Thornberry said: "If this were any other leader, in any other country in the world, the suspension of any such exports is the least we could expect from the British government in response to their actions, and our historic alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now."

Other parties also backed the call for an arms embargo and investigation, with the Liberal Democrats saying the move was necessary "given the evidence that [arms] are being used to target unarmed civilians". The Green Party said licences needed to be suspended "urgently" and the SNP said it would be "nothing short of hypocrisy" to turn a blind eye to events.

Government records show the UK grants export licences worth millions of pounds for the sale of tear gas, riot shields, so-called “rubber bullets” and other small arms to the US. The UK government's own rules say such exports should not go ahead where they are likely to be used for “internal repression”.

As previously reported by The Independent, human rights group Amnesty International led calls for the suspension of licences, alongside the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. As of Tuesday night petitioners have already gathered thousands of signatures calling for an embargo, with a letter-writing campaign to members of parliament also being organised on social media.

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 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. Donald Trump raised tensions further on Monday night after he said he would send in the US military to suppress the demonstrations if local authorities did not use sufficient force.

A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade, which regulates arms sales, told The Independent that the government "will not grant an export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with the Consolidated Criteria".

They added: “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.”

Boris Johnson has yet to comment publicly on the issue, but in the past the government has been reticent to cross Mr Trump because it is seeking a trade agreement with the US to replace the favourable terms of trade with Europe lost after the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In her letter, Labour's Emily Thornberry said: "At a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of Black civilians, it would be a disgrace for the UK to supply him with the arms and equipment he will use to do so.

"If this were any other leader, in any other country in the world, the suspension of any such exports is the least we could expect from the British government in response to their actions, and our historic alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now.

"Indeed, because our alliance is above all based on the values we share with the American people, that is all the more reason why we must not supply arms and equipment that Donald Trump is willing to use to attack his own people, in total contravention of those values.

"The British public deserve to know how arms exported by this country are being used across the world, and the American public deserve the right to protest peacefully without the threat of violent repression."

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: "Today the US President threatened to use force against his own citizens. As things stand, our Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister have stood silent. Their silence is shameful.

"The Prime Minister must make clear that the 'special relationship' with the US will not survive flagrant abuses of human rights.

"The Liberal Democrats are supporting calls from Amnesty International to review the export of security equipment including rubber bullets and tear gas to the United States, given the evidence that they are being used to target unarmed civilians."

Green party co-leader Jonathan Bartley said in his own letter to Ms Truss: "Since 2011 the government has had in place a mechanism to allow the immediate suspension of licences to countries experiencing a sharp deteriorating in security or stability.
 
"I am writing to you as head of the licensing authority for strategic exports to ask you to urgently suspend all policing and security equipment export licences to the US and investigate whether UK arms exports are being used to violate human rights and as part of internal repression." 

The Scottish National Party's (SNP) International Trade spokesperson Stewart Hosie said: “The UK has been vocal on human rights, freedom to gather and protest, freedom of speech, and upholding press freedom in other parts of the world. It would be nothing short of hypocrisy if it was to turn a blind eye to events unfolding in the US.

“The UK exports millions of pounds worth of riot control equipment to the US that may well be used to repress ongoing protests – including tear gas and rubber bullets.

“With the government’s own guidance warning against equipment being used in such ways, it’s now only right that the UK urgently reviews such exports.

“The scenes unfolding across many states in the US - but also across the world - have once again shone a light on injustice and our collective duty to eradicate racism. This is an evil that does not solely afflict the United States.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments