03/08/2015 18:43 BST | Updated 03/08/2016 06:59 BST

UK Arms Export Controls Are Broken and the Consequences Are Deadly

UK arms sales have had deadly consequences all around the world, yet the government is looking to promote them even further.


Over the last three months UK weapons and fighter jets have contributed to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen. In total, over 2,000 people have died in the Saudi-led bombardment. According to the World Health Organisation the assault has left over one million people displaced and 6.5million at risk of starvation. The dire situation has only been exacerbated by a Saudi imposed blockade that is stopping food and other basic essentials from reaching those in need.

Similarly, the government has accepted that UK weapons were likely to have been used in Israel's attacks on Gaza last year. 2,200 were killed, 18,000 homes were seriously damaged or destroyed, schools and hospitals were bombed and whole communities were without regular electricity in a bombardment that Amnesty International has shown may have included 'crimes against humanity.'

In theory UK arms exports are supposed to work on the basis of a risk assessment, so why do they keep being used in war zones? According to its own rules, the UK government should not license arms sales if there is a 'clear risk' of them being used for internal repression or external aggression. By any reasonable interpretation this should block all arms sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime is one of the most oppressive in the world, and Israel's treatment of people in the occupied territories has been both immoral and illegal. Both states have regularly been accused of flouting international law and both have a history of aggression towards their neighbours.

At the same time, both have enjoyed close political and military relationships with the UK. Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of UK weapons, and has been for a number of years, and Israel has a history of two-way military collaboration and arms sales with the UK.

What these examples have in common is that they are representative of an arms control policy that is broken. Arms sales to oppressors do not come about by accident; they are the inevitable result of an export policy that focuses on promoting and maximising sales rather than limiting them. This is because the government is not merely a dispassionate observer in the arms trade, it is an active participant.

This was evident only a few months ago, when the ADS, a trade body for the arms trade, held its annual dinner in a Mayfair hotel. It was joined by over 40 MPs from across the political spectrum and was greeted by a speech from the minister in charge of regulating the arms trade, the then business secretary Vince Cable. The ADS has since released a new report calling for the government to ease its arms export controls further. They may be pushing at an open door, with senior sources indicating that the new government will be even more supportive of exports than its predecessors.

This year the ADS will be supporting DSEI, the world's biggest arms fair, in tandem with the Ministry of Defence and UKTI DSO, the 130 strong civil service body that exists to promote arms exports. The event will be taking place in London next month and attendees will include thousands of representatives from the biggest arms companies in the world and many of the most oppressive dictatorships.

UK weapons haven't just being used against Yemen and Gaza. In recent years they have also been linked to abuses in Bahrain, Egypt, Hong Kong and Kuwait. These are only the examples we know about, and the only reason we do is because of the work of activists and journalists in uncovering them. With government figures showing that two thirds of UK arms exports are going to the Middle East, and with 4 of the 5 fastest growing arms markets in the world being in the region, it's a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon.

When countries like the UK sell weapons it doesn't just facilitate the attacks they are used in, it also sends a message of support to the governments that are carrying them out. For this to change it will require more than a few platitudes about human rights. It will need a complete overhaul of government priorities and an end to the hypocrisy that is at the heart of foreign policy.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.