UK ministers criticise repressive regimes, then sell them weapons

By staff writers
May 2, 2012

The government have published a report on regimes that abuse human rights just as statistics reveal the same regimes have bought British weapons.

Many of the countries mentioned in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) annual Human Rights and Democracy report also appear as customers in the statistics released by the Department for Business about military exports in the last quarter of 2011.

Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the human rights report without reference to the facts released by Vince Cable's Department for Business.

The FCO report lauds the Arab Spring as the "most important prospect for the enlargement of human dignity and freedom since the end of the Cold War". Meanwhile, the export figures reveal that the UK continued to license arms for export to many Arab countries before, during and after the Arab Spring.

The contrast between the two reports was highlighted today (1 May) by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Arms sales in the report included over £1.7 billion worth of military exports to Saudi Arabia and smaller, but significant, amounts to Bahrain and Egypt. While the United Nations (UN) arms embargo effectively stopped UK arms exports to Libya, the government is keen to promote arms sales to the new government in 2012.

“The FCO report is fulsome in its support for human rights and democracy in Arab Spring countries,” said CAAT's Kaye Stearman. “However, the figures show that the UK government is happy to approve arms exports to the same governments who abuse and suppress human rights.”

The FCO report lists Saudi Arabia as a "country of concern" in terms of human rights. It gives a detailed account of human rights violations within the country, including an unrepresentative government, abuses of women, migrant workers and religious minorities, torture and severe restriction of personal freedoms. It did not include Saudi military intervention in neighbouring Bahrain in March 2011.

But in 2011, Saudi Arabia was the UK's second largest customer (after France) with "strategic exports" totalling £1.75 billion, of which £1.735 billion were military exports. By far the largest category were "aircraft, helicopters, drones" valued at £1.708 billion, but there were also substantial amounts listed for "grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures" at £15 million and £1.5 million for "small arms".

When it comes to Bahrain, the FCO report notes "long-standing concerns about discrimination, corruption and marginalising of Bahrain's minority Shia population” which have contributed to ongoing opposition protests since early 2011.

However, although some arms export licences were revoked in February 2011, arms exports had resumed by June, reaching a total for the year of £2.25 million. The figure was described as “lamentable” by CAAT.

In Egypt, the FCO states that the UK government supported "an orderly transition to a democratic system ... to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people".

Despite the fact that Egypt remained under military rule after the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011, the statistics show that in 2011 the UK government continued to license arms for export to Egypt valued at over £2 million – considerably more than the 2010 total of £1.2 million.

It is perhaps on the question of Libya that critics will note the greatest inconsistency. The FCO report applauds the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, saying one of the key causes was “the desire of the Libyan people to see their basic human rights respected after 42 years of repression”.

Yet, nowhere in the report does it state that the UK sold arms to Gaddafi until a UN embargo was imposed in March 2011. In 2010 military exports to Libya totalled £34.7million. In the final quarter of 2010, just before the 17 February uprising, licences were approved for military equipment, totalling £2.2 million, including components for combat aircraft and over £446,000 worth of small arms equipment.

Since Gaddafi's overthrow, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) – a unit of Vince Cable's department - has organised arms trade missions to the new government.

Kaye Stearman said, “It's time to end the double standards and stop selling weapons to these authoritarian and repressive regimes”.


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.