UK government under fire over arms deals with Sri Lanka

By staff writers
June 3, 2009

News that the UK government has licenced multi-million pound arms deals with the Sri Lankan government has triggered outrage amongst campaigners and MPs.

Sales of over worth of military equipment worth £13 million were approved by UK authorities in the last three years during which there has been vicious fighting and a heavy death toll in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Items included armoured vehicles and machine - gun components as well as small arms, according to an investigation revealed in the Times newspaper.

The sales are thought likely to breach the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, given the probability of their being used in the Sri Lankan government’s war against Tamil separatists.

Critics such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have long argued that the Code is too flimsy and is often overlooked in practice.

"The EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports is supposed to restrict exports to countries with poor human rights records and those in conflict. Sri Lanka ticks both those boxes” said CAAT’s Kaye Stearman today. She described the exports to Sri Lanka as “shameful”.

Slovakia and Bulgaria are also reported to have been involved in multi-million pound arms deals with Sri Lanka. Slovakian authorities were accused of breaking the Code of Conduct over a year ago when they permitted rocket sales to Sri Lanka.

Labour MP Mike Gapes, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has called for answers from the government about the use of the weapons. Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce said that “Britain’s sales did violate the EU Code”.

Symon Hill, associate director of the think-tank Ekklesia, declared: “UN officials estimate that 20,000 civilians were killed in Sri Lanka in five months. Yet while the UK government was calling for a peaceful solution, they were allowing arms dealers to profit by filling Sri Lanka with even more weapons."

He added: "This illustrates the sheer cynicism that lies at the core of the officially-sanctioned commercial arms sales. It is not just unethical behaviour by MPs and the parliamentary system that needs changing, but the whole way government is routinely enmeshed in a trade that breeds corruption and destruction."

The news about the Sri Lankan deals follows increasing British public hostility to the arms trade in recent years. In particular, there have been sharp criticisms of arms companies’ influence within government since the suspension of a criminal investigation into the arms firm BAE Systems in 2006.

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