Foreign Secretary William Hague has been accused of failing to respond adequately to criticism of arms sales to repressive regimes in the Middle East and north Africa. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has pointed out that new figures show that the Arab spring had little effect on the extent of UK arms exports to the region.
In a written statement, Hague stated that there were no fundamental flaws with the UK arms export licensing system, although mechanisms should be strengthened to enable revised risk categorisation, quicker response and and "immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp increase in insecurity".
Yet, recently released government figures reveal that the UK government continued to issue licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other authoritarian states in the Middle East and north Africa, even as popular protests swept the region.
The figures for the second quarter of 2011 in the Department for Business’ Strategic Export Control Reports were issued this week. From April to June 2011 licences were approved for military and dual-use equipment totalling £1.774 billion. Weaponry ranged from combat aircraft to ammunition, body armour and components.
Furthermore, delegations from countries in the Middle East were invited by the UK government to attend the recent London arms fair, known formally as Defence & Security International (DSEi). They included Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Kaye Stearman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said that Hague’s statement had failed to answer “the stinging criticism from the parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls that the government had misjudged the risks that UK arms sold to authoritarian governments might be used for internal repression”.
She added, “Rather Mr Hague repeats the fallacy that there are no fundamental flaws in the system and that the solution is better intelligence and speedy revocation of licences. Revoking licences is too late - once the weapons have gone, the UK government has no control over how they are used.”
CAAT said that the latest figures show that the government continues to promote and sell arms to dangerous and undemocratic governments. They said that the only solution is an immediate end to all arms sales to repressive regimes.
A detailed breakdown of the figures by CAAT showed that while military approvals dropped in March, in the immediate aftermath of brutal repression in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, they returned to previously high levels in April and onwards.
Indeed there seemed to have been a concerted effort by UK arms companies, backed by the UK government, to exhibit and sell hardware specially useful for internal repression.
As in past years, the largest customer in the region was Saudi Arabia where 21 military licences were issued with a total value of £1.706 billion, most of this accounted for by two licences covering combat aircraft. Other items included components for military and support aircraft, military helicopters, naval vessels, sniper rifles and water cannons, plus gun mountings, gun silencers and hand grenades.
Despite continuing repression in Bahrain, the UK also licensed weapons and dual-use equipment for export to the value of £127,000. These included body armour and components for body armour.
Other large customers in the region were Oman, where a wide range of weapons and components worth £8.8 million were licensed for sale; United Arab Emirates (UAE), with £6.7 million worth of weapons approved for export and Tunisia, with licences totalling £3.1 million.
Smaller but significant amounts were licensed for export to Algeria (£475,000) Egypt (£202,000), Iraq (£352,000), Israel (£999,000), Jordan (£591,000), Kuwait (£1.5 million), Morocco (£466,979) and Qatar with £200,000.
One country where no arms sales were recorded over the period was Libya, previously a priority market for UK arms sales. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, passed on 17 March, placed an international arms embargo on Libya. However, arms sales may commence before the end of 2011 and the new Libyan National Transitional Council has indicated that it will fulfil previous government contracts.