BRITAIN approved the export of shotguns and tear gas to Libya, machine guns and sniper rifles to Bahrain, and military technology to Yemen over the past three years, MPs have disclosed in a report criticising the governments involved.
Legislators accused successive British governments of putting efforts to boost arms sales ahead of concerns over the risk that authoritarian regimes could use UK-supplied weapons against their critics.
In a joint report today, Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence, international development and business committees said ministers had failed to properly consider the implications of weapons sales to the Middle East and elsewhere.
“Both the present government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression,” the report said.
Following protests that have swept the Middle East, and the violent suppression of demonstrations in some countries, Britain has revoked dozens of licences approving weapons sales to Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Egypt. Ministers also have ordered a review of all arms exports to Bahrain and Yemen, and the UK has supported a UN arms embargo on Libya.
Britain has been “vigorously backpedalling on arms exports that had previously been approved”, said John Stanley, a governing Conservative Party lawmaker responsible for overseeing the report.
“The committees welcome these revocations of arms export licences … but their number, 156 by the time the committees concluded their report, reflects the degree of policy misjudgment that has occurred,” Mr Stanley said. He said the report had published for the first time a country-by-country breakdown of the type of weapons approved for export from Britain in 2009 and 2010.
In 2009, licences were approved to sell combat shotguns, military cargo vehicles and communications equipment to Libya. A year later, ministers sanctioned the sale of infrared and thermal imaging cameras, tear gas and crowd control ammunition.
Licences to sell assault rifles and aircraft cannons to Bahrain were approved in 2009, and clearance for the sale of smoke grenades, submachine guns and sniper rifles granted the following year. Defence firms also were given the go-ahead to sell electronic warfare equipment and machine guns to Egypt, ammunition to Tunisia and body armour, night-vision goggles and military camera components to Yemen.
The report disclosed that Britain also approved the sale of cryptography equipment to Syria, helicopter components to Algeria and shotguns to Morocco. Kaye Stearman, of the lobby group Campaign Against Arms Trade, said the uprisings in the Middle East had acted as a wake-up call to Britain over its arms sales.
She said ministers must decide whether exporting weapons or promoting human rights was its priority. “We have long argued that they can’t be reconciled,” Ms Stearman said. Britain’s business ministry said it would consider the report’s recommendations and report its response to Parliament.