Since the 2016 referendum, the British Government has stepped up its arms sales offensive. In the hunt for post-Brexit allies, the British Government has had dealings with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, and more. The Prime Minister has been leading the charge, with her International Trade Secretary following suit.
The arms trade is exempted from agreements to limit exports subsidies, which means that governments are free to promote their arms exports in a variety of ways.
While the government has to wait to negotiate other trade agreements until Brexit comes into effect, it remains free to promote arms trade deals around the world. The Department for Trade has prioritised arms sales for Britain’s post-Brexit industrial policy.
Ministers are using the arms trade loophole to pursue dealings with repressive countries in a desperate attempt to boost trading relations, having cut ties with our largest trading partner – the European Single Market.
When it comes to arms trade, the UK’s commitment to human rights has always been at best selective. With the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, there is every reason to believe the government will do even more to push arms sales and cosy-up to human rights abusers.
In December 2016, the Prime Minister attended the Gulf Cooperation Summit where she called for new alliances with old friends, including those in the Middle East, where two thirds of UK arms sales go.
In January 2017, the Prime Minister secured a £100million fighter jet deal with the Turkish government under President Erdogan, despite 125,000 state workers having been purged from their jobs and a further 40,000 people arrested since the failed coup attempt in July 2016.
The Saudi Coalition’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict has not deterred the British Government. British sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia topped £1.1bn in the first half of this year, with Department for International Trade data showing a spike in sales since the spring.
Nearly a third of the 15,000 Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen have targeted non-military sites, including farms, market places and food storage sites. 60,000 people have died in the 1,000-day war. 17.8 million people do not have access to food, and there are 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid and protection.
Adding fuel to humanitarian crises abroad will not do any favours for security here.
Neither will pursuing arms sales with repressive regimes mitigate the economic harm caused by leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
After all the UK arms export industry is fairly small. British defence exports in 2015 took £7.7bn in turnover, which was 0.27% of our GDP, and 1.6% of our exports in the same year.
The British Government is deluded if it thinks it can forge allies and build its Global Britain reputation based on dodgy arms deals.
Working closely with our EU partners, an important set of safeguards has been established to help prevent arms sales that risk fuelling human rights violations. But so much more needs to be done.
During the summer I raised concerns over the lawfulness of sales of surveillance technology and decryption software to several Gulf and North African states and urged the Government to review existing legislation and oversight procedures governing the export of arms and security technologies.
Desperation is easily detected by despotic countries and post-Brexit UK must not become the go-to arms dealer of choice for repressive regimes.
In pursuit of perceived global dominance, we cannot afford to sacrifice what’s left of our skeletal principles as a British State.