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UK Arms Exports - Lessons Still to Be Learned from the Arab Spring

01/08/2013 11:27 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 10:12 BST

In response to recent events in Egypt the UK Government has revoked a total of five licences for arms exports to that country: for ground-vehicle military communications equipment (two licences) and their components (one licence), and for machine-gun components (two licences). While this seems perfectly sensible, it begs two major questions: why did the Government authorise these exports in the first place; and what other revocations are in order?

When the Arab Spring bloomed at the end of 2010, the UK Government defended its arms exports to the region on the grounds that no one saw the Arab Spring coming, that the states in question had not appeared fragile, that there had been no reason for undue concern up until then. At that point it quickly revoked over 150 existing licences and set up an internal review of the national arms export control system. The review concluded that the UK's arms export system was basically sound, though it did identify a few areas where procedures could be tightened.

The Government's "who'd have thought it?" defence at the time was always open to challenge. To be sure, no blame attaches for not predicting the timing or the spark that lit the fuse, but the combustible mix was always there. This therefore presented a real chance for the UK Government to review its approach to arms exports, particularly as it would have naturally coincided with its wider policy response to the Arab Spring. For example, its 2011 Building Stability Overseas Strategy articulates a vision of 'structural' stability (built on the consent of the population) which could facilitate an improved assessment of conflict risk in relation to UK arms transfer controls. All of which suggests the time was ripe for more than some procedural tightening.

Which brings us to last week's report by the CAEC, which identified over 3,000 extant export licences worth more than £12 billion for strategic goods (arms) going to the FCO's "27 Countries of Human Rights concern". Not all of these licences are problematic. For example, most of the approximately £800 million worth of licences for exports to Iran is for civilian aircraft. But among the items authorised for export to a range of countries such as Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka--e.g. small arms, ammunition, riot-control equipment, military combat vehicles and combat aircraft--there is still plenty that gives real cause for concern.

Surprisingly, Egypt was not included by the FCO on its 'list of 27'. The CAEC, however, did choose to look at Egypt licences, on the grounds that Egypt was, and is, a problematic destination. The CAEC report would have been drafted before civil disturbance flared there again, so this is not a case of being wise after the event.

The CAEC report listed an existing 88 standard licences worth over £59 million for exports of equipment to Egypt. This included more than £4 million worth of small arms (1,300 assault rifles, 150 combat shotguns, 60 pistols, 200 sniper rifles and 200 rifles), and ammunition, components and related equipment for small arms, as well as other equipment such as body armour and components for combat vehicles. In addition, there are another 47 licences which place no limit on the scale of exports ('open licences') and which include a wide range of equipment such as: components, software and technology for combat aircraft and helicopters; aircraft cannons and their technology; heavy machine guns, small arms and missiles; components and equipment for fast attack craft; and components and equipment for small arms and light weapons and missiles.

This worrying list of equipment suggests that, despite any procedural improvements, very little has changed when it comes to actual decisions about arms exports to Egypt. And this time, the "who'd have thought it?" excuse is looking gossamer-thin.

It's possible I'm being too harsh on the Government. Maybe the remaining 130 licences for exports to Egypt are OK, and the risk that any of this other equipment might be misused is minor. But I suspect we need more revocations now, and a tighter policy on actually issuing licences in future. At the very least we need more information.

This time the standard Government response - that the UK has one of the most rigorous licensing regimes in the world and will not grant export licences where it judges there is a clear risk the goods might be misused - is simply not good enough. We need to know exactly who the end-users are. We need to know what the goods are supposed to be used for (the Government does have this information). And we need to know why the Government is so confident that it is safe to export. Only then can we have any confidence that lessons of the Arab Spring are indeed being learned.