British government accused of misleading public...
The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been accused of misleading parliament about UK weapons sales to repressive regimes, amid growing pressure on the government over the lucrative trade.
In 2017, arms sales to countries on the government’s own watchlist of human rights abusers doubled compared to the previous year. Sales were granted to 18 countries on the list, including China, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, compared to 20 different states in 2016.
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have come under renewed scrutiny and faced opposition in the wake of the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the devastating civilian death toll from the war in Yemen.
According to Independent, the UK government has licensed nearly £5bn worth of arms to Riyadh since the conflict began in 2015, despite widespread civilian casualties and accusations of war crimes.
The fighting in Yemen, has killed at least 10,000 civilians – most of whom were victims of airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition – and left nearly 16 million people on the brink of famine. The United Nations has accused the Saudi coalition of “widespread and systematic” strikes on civilian targets. The coalition has admitted causing civilian casualties but attributes the deaths to “unintentional mistakes”, and says it is committed to upholding international law.
Within the Kingdom itself, Saudi authorities have been accused of carrying out a violent crackdown against Shia residents of the Eastern Province. Riyadh maintains those targeted were “terrorists”.
Despite those concerns, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia rose from £1.8bn in the three years prior to the war in 2015, to £3.6bn over the next three years.
“There is little oversight in the system, and no controls over how these arms will be used once they have left the UK. The arms sales being agreed today could be used to fuel atrocities for years to come. Right now UK-made fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the Saudi-led destruction of Yemen, and the government and arms companies have totally failed to monitor or evaluate how this deadly equipment is being used.” Said Andrew Smith, the media coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Despite the oppositions, Mr. Hunt has defended the lucrative trade, and the sale of UK weapons generally, telling parliament in October that restrictions on selling to repressive governments had been “strengthened under the Conservative-led coalition in 2014” .
But that position has been challenged by Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the Committees on Arms Export Controls and claims that restrictions on weapons sales have in fact been chipped away. He has now written to the foreign secretary and asked him to correct the record, pointing to a report by the committee that had discovered “a substantive weakening of UK arms export controls”.
“By representing the weakening of UK arms export controls as a strengthening of said controls, particularly in an argument for the approval of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia [...] it appears to constitute an unintentionally misleading of parliament,” Mr Russell-Moyle wrote.
The MP for Brighton Kemptown told The Independent: “The government has learned how to bypass UK arms export control law to ensure that Paveway bombs flow uninterrupted from the Raytheon factory to the British-made and maintained planes used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”
At issue is a 2014 change to the wording of the rules that govern which countries can be sold weapons and military equipment made in the UK. According to the Committees on Arms Export Controls, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government changed the criteria from refusing arms exports “which might be used for internal repression”, to refusing “if there is a clear risk that items might be used for internal repression”.
The committee concluded that the change made it easier to sell weapons to countries which might use them for repressive means.
Also Israel was the second-biggest buyer of UK arms in 2017 to feature on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) human rights priority list, with £221m of licences granted. In its watch list covering 2017, the FCO condemned Israel’s breaches of international law by its ongoing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and also “its systematic policy of settlement expansion”.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said Mr Hunt has distorted the truth around British arms sales to rights abusers.
“Hunt’s claims that the government is tightening regulations couldn’t be further from the truth. He has followed the same appalling policies as his predecessors. The UK Government routinely arms and supports human rights-abusing regimes and dictatorships across the world,” he said.
“The arms sales that Hunt and his colleagues are promoting today could be used in atrocities for years to come. It’s time for him to end the distortions and stop the arms sales.”