There has been an outraged response in the UK to the news that the UK government has licensed sales of tear gas and crowd control weapons to Bahrain and Libya, whose governments have been violently suppressing peaceful protests in recent days.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) today (18 February) revealed the extent of the UK's role in arming the regimes.
Sales to these countries have been promoted by the UK government arms promotion unit the Defence & Security Organisation, a wing of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).
The news has caused such outrage that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said that the government is reviewing the licensing of arms sales to these countries.
But CAAT say that an immediate arms embargo must be imposed.
This weekend, UKTI and a number of UK-based arms commpanies are planning to attend IDEX, an arms fair in the United Arab Emirates, and the biggest such event in the Middle East. The UK arms dealers' trade body ADS boasts that 10 per cent of exhibitors will be British businesses and organisations. CAAT insist that the in the light of this week's news, UKTI must pull out of IDEX.
In 2010, equipment approved for export to Bahrain included tear gas and crowd control ammunition, equipment for the use of aircraft cannons, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns. No requests for licences were refused. UKTI has listed Bahrain as a key market for UK arms exports.
UK armed forces have been used in support of sales efforts, demonstrating arms to the Royal Bahrain Artillery.
When it comes to Libya, equipment approved for export from the UK has included wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, and tear gas/irritant ammunition. Sniper rifles were among the other equipment licensed in 2010. No requests for licences were refused in 2010.
The Bahraini and Libyan authorities were both invited to attend two recent UK arms fairs: Farnborough in 2010 and Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) in 2009.
Arms export licences have also been approved by the UK for sales to the governments of Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has been a heavy recipient of arms licensed in the UK since the 1980s.
“Government ministers claim they wish to support open and democratic societies in the Middle East but at the same time are aiding authoritarian regimes and providing the tools for repression," said Sarah Waldron of CAAT, "They don't just approve the sale of this equipment - they actively promote it.”
Waldron insisted, "There should be an immediate arms embargo – but more importantly we should be asking why these exports were ever licensed in the first place".
"This news raises serious concerns about the UK government's commitment to the development of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa" said Symon Hill, associate director of the thinktank Ekklesia.
"Many UK taxpayers will be alarmed to discover that they have unwittingly facilitated the sale of tear gas and crowd control weapons to regimes that have used them to suppress peaceful protests," said Hill, "It is difficult to imagine how else British ministers thought such equipment would be used".
He added, "The UK government can gain back some credibility by heeding the call for an arms embargo on regimes such as Bahrain and Libya and by pulling out of the IDEX arms fair in the Middle East next week."