Britain claims to have some of the world’s most stringent controls when it comes to exporting arms around the world. In many respects, the checks and balances we place on UK-made weaponry are significantly more onerous than those provided by our global competitors. But it doesn’t stop British hardware ending up in the hands of some pretty odious regimes. After all, Saudi Arabia remains Britain’s most loyal and extravagant arms purchaser to the tune of more than £4billion over the past five years.
But no matter how much red tape we put in place to limit who we sell arms to, the simple fact remains that we have no control over how such weaponry will be used once it leaves our hands.
Nothing proves this better than the Arab Spring. Arms campaigners had warned for years that Western weaponry sold to nepotistic, cash rich, paranoid and weapon-hungry regimes in the Middle East and North Africa would one day be used on their own people. Sure enough, when genuine calls for freedom were made on the streets of Benghazi, Cairo, Sana’a, Manama and Damascus, they were met with bullets – many were made abroad.
The British Government’s repeated claims that no export licences would be issued to countries where there is “a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts” looked entirely hollow when – as the Arab Spring raged – one only had to glance at our export lists to see countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen snapping up British arms in the preceding years.
This is why it is not surprising to see that we have granted licences to export weapons – including small arms and ammunition – to Sri Lanka. But it is depressing. After all, the Sri Lankan army and the Rajapaksa government stand accused of overseeing some of the most horrific war crimes of the 21st century and have repeatedly resisted pressure to allow access to investigators.
Tens of thousands of civilians died in the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, with widespread reports of rape, extrajudicial killing and deliberate targeting of civilians. At the time, Britain was one of those shouting loudest. Three years on we are selling weaponry to the same regime.
A similar rehabilitation occurred with Bahrain. When scores of protesters in Manama were receiving nightly doses of bird-shot and tear gas – most of which came from European arms manufactures – Britain briefly suspended its export licences, acutely aware of the huge embarrassment such deals now caused.
The abuses continue to this day against Bahraini opposition protesters – yet the export restrictions have been quietly lifted and last summer Bahrain’s King Hamed al-Khalifa was welcomed into Downing Street.
The message Britain sends out is clear: while you are actively turning weaponry on your own people, we won’t sell arms to you. But give it some time, take your finger of the trigger for a while, and we’ll start resuming exports again.