In 12 months, between 2016 and 2017, Britain’s sales of arms to the world’s most repressive regimes increased significantly — by nearly a third. 

The export of weaponry and defence equipment is worth £5.9 billion a year to the British economy. 

But in the year following June 2016, the government cleared export licences worth £2.9 billion, according to a joint investigation by “the i” newspaper and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

And, of the 35 countries considered “not free” by international think-tank Freedom House, the UK is reported to have increased its exports to 17 of them. 

Take action: Thank the UN Secretary-General for Bringing Justice to the Children of Yemen

It represents a 28% increase in arms exports when compared to the 12 previous months, according to the investigation. 

“Theresa May has talked about building a ‘global Britain’ but it can’t be one that willingly ignores human rights abuses and prioritises arms sales to tyrants,” said Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT. 

“The UK’s post-Brexit future has to aspire to better than exporting weapons and war. These arms sales could have devastating consequences for years to come. How low will the government sink in order to build its political and trading relationships?”

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Among the countries which saw an increase in their licences were Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand — many of which are the UK’s “priority markets,” according to the Department for International Trade.

And it has caused concern among campaigners that the UK is “prioritising arms sales to tyrants.” 

Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest single export market, after licences worth £1.12 billion were granted last year, according to “the i”. And since 2015, Saudi Arabia has placed orders for more than £3.75 billion worth of British defence equipment, primarily bombs and fighter aircraft. 

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It is the US and the UK’s largest trading partner for heavy conventional weapons, making up 13% of the US’s total military exports, and 48% of the UK’s arms exports in 2012-6, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute from 2012-6.

That’s despite the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, say activists, which has hit schools and hospitals, killing and maiming thousands of children. 
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The nearly 3-year conflict in Yemen has directly killed over 10,000 people, according to the CAAT — including more than 1,600 children, according to the UN — and more than 8 million Yemenis are now dependent on aid. This crisis has been described by the UN as an “entirely man-made catastrophe.” 

“Thousands have been killed, and millions displaced, yet the Saudi military remains by far the world’s largest buyer of UK arms,” said Andrew Smith, of CAAT. 

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In this year’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report, the UN named the Saudi-led coalition for committing grave violations against children, an area which Global Citizen campaigned on. 

Saudi Arabia is spearheading a military campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen, saying they want to restore the Yemeni government.

The UK is the second largest donor to the UN appeal for Yemen and, including a £50 million aid package announced in December, has pledged £205 million for 2017-8, making it the third largest donor overall. 

“Any aid that is reaching those in need must be welcomed, but the best thing that Theresa May and her colleagues can do for the Yemeni people is to stop the arms sales and end their political and military support for the Saudi regime,” added Smith.

The Department for International Trade rejects campaigner’s criticism, saying it “takes its export control responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.”

“Each licence application is rigorously assessed against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, which require us to consider the impact of providing equipment and its capabilities — risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment,” it added. “We will not grant a licence unless the exports are consistent with these criteria.”

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One of the largest arms sales increases in the 12 months was to Bahrain — which saw its export licences double to £31 million, according to figures collated by the CAAT in collaboration with “the i”. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described Bahrain’s human rights record as “dismal,” and said it “has worsened in recent years.” 

“The country’s courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters and have failed to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations, including security forces’ disproportionate use of force to quell unrest,” says HRW on its website. 

“The authorities prosecute and jail prominent human rights activists and political opposition leaders, dissolve political opposition groups, and strip the citizenship of dissidents,” it adds. 

Meanwhile, a £1.1 billion deal for combat aircraft and components, as well as tear gas, was signed with Oman — which has been accused of cracking down on freedom of assembly — last June, according to the figures. 

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Uzbekistan — which scored 3 out of 100 on the Freedom House freedom index, making it one of the least free countries in the world according to Freedom House — was also granted a licence to import military vehicles worth nearly £200,000.

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Further deals were also struck with Equatorial Guinea, which rated 8 out of 100 on the freedom index; for anti-riot equipment with Thailand, which was criticised in 2014 for heavy-handed army control after a military coup, but saw its UK military exports increase by four times to £16 million in 2017, according to “the i”; and for crowd control ammunition to the United Arab Emirates, which, according to “the i”, saw a year-on-year increase in sales of £90 million.

The UK has signed the Arms Trade Treaty, pledging not to sell weapons to countries where there is a risk that those weapons will be used in human rights violations. 

But human rights groups have accused the UK government of ignoring that obligation by supplying arms to countries, like Saudi Arabia, “despite overwhelming and credible evidence of serious violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.” 

“About half a million people are killed every year by firearms, and millions more are trapped in brutal conflicts fuelled by reckless arms sales,” said James Lynch, Head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, in a statement. “The Arms Trade Treaty promised to save countless lives by reigning in this massive, secretive industry, but at the moment weak implementation and a lack of transparency are threatening to undermine it.”

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Some further exports were granted for humanitarian reasons, such as enabling humanitarian groups to carry out their work safely in war-stricken countries. 

For example, £900,000 worth of protective equipment for United Nations and NGO staff went to South Sudan; and, of £21 million worth of exports to Afghanistan, some £14 million was for equipment to detect terrorist bombs.

International trade secretary Liam Fox set the agenda for the future of the arms trade in September 2017, on the opening day of one of the world’s biggest weapons trade exhibitions, the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event in London. 

“We must work to defend and promote the established defence industry,” said Fox. “Those who trade from advanced economies must remember that if we did not provide countries with the means of defending themselves, then we would see the proliferation of uncontrolled and unregulated arms sales free from oversight or inhibition.” 

Campaigners say, however, the new “global Britain…can’t be one that willingly ignores human rights abuses and prioritises arms sales to tyrants,” according to CAAT’s Adam Smith. 

“The UK’s post-Brexit future has to aspire to better than exporting weapons and war. These arms sales could have devastating consequences for years to come. How low will the government sink in order to build its political and trading relationships?” 

Global Citizen campaigned to get the UN to name and shame the Saudi-led Coalition for committing grave violations against children. This year, Saudi Arabia was finally included in the UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report.

You can take action with us here to now say thank you to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for holding all parties to Yemen’s war accountable for killing and maiming children. 


Demand Equity

The World's Most Repressive Regimes Are Getting Billions of Dollars of Weapons From the UK

By Imogen Calderwood