Most UK arms are being sold via a secretive and opaque licensing regime that allows for the mass transfer of deadly weapons to “sensitive locations”, according to new analysis.
Researchers found tens of billions of pounds worth of missiles, bombs and machine guns had been sold under open licences, a mechanism that makes the tracking of arms sales more difficult.
It has prompted accusations that the government is attempting to mask the true extent of British-made arms export to repressive regimes – claims it denies.
Analysis of government export licence figures and military contracts from 2010 to 2019 by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) indicates that around £44bn of the total £86.1bn have been sold through open licences. Critics said the figures were “extremely alarming” and called for the use of open licences to be stopped.
The research found that the UK government had approved at least 10,390 open licences since 2010, many to countries with poor human rights records. These include more than 200 to Saudi Arabia which is leading a coalition responsible for widespread bombing in a proxy war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions.
Almost 270 shipments went to India which has been accused of human rights abuses in Kashmir and whose police were found complicit in anti-Muslim violence. Another 167 licences were agreed with Turkey which has intensified its campaign against a decades-old Kurdish insurgency.
“By using this opaque mechanism, the government is making proper scrutiny of arms sales even harder,” said Andrew Smith of CAAT.
“The use of open licences needs to be stopped, and so do the policies and mindset that has allowed the arms sales in the first place. UK-made weapons are playing a devastating impact in the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen and beyond. These weapons could be fuelling abuses and atrocities around the world.”
The UK government also sells military goods across the world using standard export licences which are far more transparent, specifying the value of goods and destination. Open licences, however, allow an unlimited transfer of an agreed type of military equipment to a destination over a designated period of time, though the weapons transferred do not have to be accounted for and their totals are not made public.
More than 1,800 open licences involved small arms – including sniper rifles, assault rifles and ammunition. These included 87 to Sri Lanka, which has been accused of atrocities against the Tamils; 49 to Egypt whose government has faced criticism for state repression; and the Philippines whose brutal war on drugs has seen thousands killed by police.
There were also 199 open licences for teargas with destinations including Hong Kong whose police have been accused of brutality in clashes with pro-democracy protesters.
“These licences are only supposed to be used for ‘less sensitive’ goods but much of the equipment exported is extremely deadly and the locations it is sent to are often very sensitive,” added Smith.
A government spokesperson said: “The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”They added that no country published as much data as the UK about licensing decisions.