Britain has issued billions of dollars’ worth of export licenses for the sale of military equipment to states that are considered possible rights violators, it was revealed on Wednesday. The countries include Syria, Iran and China.
The report by British lawmakers on Wednesday said there is an “inherent conflict” between Britain’s arms exports and its human rights policies.
The Foreign Office has a list of 27 countries where the government has concerns about human rights violations. Only two of those countries, South Sudan and North Korea, do not have valid arms export licenses.
Wednesday’s parliamentary report came from the Commons Committee on Arms Exports Controls. Its chairman, John Stanley, spoke to the BBC.
“We were very surprised both by the number- over 3,000 - of extant arms export licenses going to countries which the British government has designated as countries of serious human rights concerns," he said. "We were also surprised by the value of those licenses, over 12 billion pounds [$18 billion].”
The largest number of licenses were issued for exports to China, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
More than 60 licenses were granted for Iran, despite ongoing international concerns over its nuclear program. Three were granted to Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war.
The committee specifically raised concerns over a license granted to Israel worth more than $10 billion - well over half of the total to all countries. The license was for cryptography equipment.
Commission Chair Stanley said the committee will be questioning the government over the license, asking whether elements of Israel’s license for equipment could be used for internal repression.
A spokeswoman for Britain's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said cryptography is a means of “preventing unauthorized access to data." She said most of the licenses were for commercial applications, such as online shopping and banking.
But campaign groups said Wednesday that the committee report highlights an argument they have long been making - that Britain needs to tighten up its arms export policies.
“You only have to look at what is happening right now in Egypt to know that the risks posed by sending things like small arms there are very strong," said Amnesty International's U.K. Arms Program Director Oliver Sprague. "It is extremely likely that the Egyptian security forces will use any equipment like that to brutally suppress its own population.”
Egypt is not on the list of 27 Countries of Human Rights concern.
Currently, there are standard individual export licenses worth just under $1 billion for exports to Egypt, including for body armor and components for combat vehicles, as well as for small arms and ammunition.
Campaign groups, including Amnesty International, have been especially critical of British arms exports to the Middle East in recent years. They say arms sold by Britain were used by repressive governments to suppress popular protests, including in Bahrain and Libya.
Sprague said it’s time Britain learned its lesson from the bloodshed of recent years.
“We never should have been sending the Colonel Gaddafi regime as much weapons as we sold him, because it was always likely if that country ever degenerated into turmoil that those weapons would be used against Libya's own population, which is indeed exactly what happened,” he said.
In reaction to the report, the British government said it has one of the “most rigorous” arms export control regimes. It said licenses are not granted when there is a risk that goods would be used for repression or to exacerbate conflict.