Arab spring means ‘UK must rethink arms sales’

By Ian Dunt

The government needs to fundamentally rethink how arms sales fit its human rights rhetoric, a Commons report has said.

The annual UK strategic export control report listed the licences to north African and Middle East countries the government had “back-peddled” on, but insisted that the list stood as a testament to the moral problems with the status quo.

“The committees have detailed the arms export licence revocations the government has made since January 2011, vigorously back-pedalling on arms exports that had previously been approved,” said chair of the committees, Sir John Stanley.

“The committees welcome these revocations of arms export licences to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain but their number – 156 by the time the committees concluded their report – reflects the degree of policy misjudgement that has occurred.”

The committee said the government and its predecessors “misjudged” the risk that certain arms exports could be used for internal repression.

In a ground-breaking move that reflects the level of disquiet at British arms exports in the wake of the Arab spring, the report includes an annex which documents country-by-country examples of post-January 2009 export licences that could be used for internal repression by authoritarian states.

The government is currently conducting a review of arms exports after concerns were raised about the use of British products by Arab dictators trying to quell dissent at home.

With Britain taking a leading role in shoring up western support for pro-democracy campaigns in the region, it is highly susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy.

David Cameron found himself front-and-centre of those accusations when he launched a regional tour with several arms companies, including a stop off in post-Mubarak Egypt. The combination of human rights rhetoric and an entourage of arms dealers opened the prime minister to ridicule in some quarters.

The committee called for the government to extend the review so that it includes authoritarian regimes worldwide, not just in north Africa or the Middle East.

The strategic export control report is compiled by the Commons business, innovation and skills, defence, foreign affairs and international development committees.