‘Crowd control’ sniper rifles? UK arms trade attacked

By Georgie Keate

The government has been heavily criticised for licensing weapons to authoritarian regimes for the use of civilian repression.

The report published by the arms export controls committees instructed the government to review its 600 arms licences to Arab countries, suggesting it may contravene government policy and be used for "internal repression".

"The government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes 'which might be used to facilitate internal repression' in contravention of British government policy," the report concluded.

However, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said: "It is wrong to allege that in the run-up to the Arab Spring UK export controls were lax.

"This is evidence of a system that is working, not failing. There is no evidence that equipment supplied by the UK was used to facilitate internal repression during the Arab Spring."

The report was particularly critical of the government's use of the label 'crowd control goods' for sniper rifles and armoured fighting vehicles.

"It is misleading and also profoundly disrespectful to the thousands of unarmed civilians in the Arab Spring countries who have courageously demonstrated for human rights and fundamental freedoms and have put their lives at risk in doing so," the report found.

The government withdrew 158 arms licences following the Arab Spring which showed "demonstrable evidence that the initial judgements to approve the applications were flawed", the committee argued.

The report demanded a public and transparent review on the UK's arms exports following discoveries that the UK has 288 export licences to Saudi Arabia and nine outstanding to the Syrian government, including chemicals, cryptographic equipment and £200,000-worth of "all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection".

The government's lack of policy continuity was also highlighted: "The government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time."

There was controversy over the UK's licensing to Argentina in the context of tensions over the Falklands. Government policy has tightened controls in the trade of arms for military use in Argentina but the report urged communication with the US and EU to do the same.

The committee asked the government to extend its arms export review to countries beyond the Middle East and North Africa to all authoritarian regimes with human rights abuses across the world.