A total of 3,298 outstanding arms export licenses, valued at £5.2 billion, have been granted to 28 nations listed as "Countries of Human Rights Concern" by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Britain has approved export licenses to Libya for anti-riot shields, assault rifles shotguns, hand grenades, body armor, military helmets, submachine guns, military support vehicles and tear gas ammunition. It has also approved export to Saudi Arabia of sniper rifles and intelligence equipment — and export to Syria of body armor, military helmets and cryptographic software.
Other "countries of concern" that are set to benefit from UK arms exports are Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia, and Sri Lanka.
The annual report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), a parliamentary watchdog on arms sales, chastises the British government for an apparent disconnect between its condemnation of human rights abuses worldwide — and its policy of selling tons of weapons to authoritarian regimes.
"The Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticizing their lack of human rights at the same time," the report reads.
The CAEC accuses the UK government of working to "reduce the transparency" of its arms exports — by encouraging British weapons manufacturers to trade under an opaque licensing scheme that does not require that the value of exported goods be made public.
Exporters are being discouraged from seeking Standard Individual Export Licenses (SIELs), which grant approval for a single consignment of goods to be sent abroad within a two-year period.
Instead, manufacturers are pushed to obtain Open Individual Export Licenses (OIELs). OIELs allow for an unlimited number of consignments over a five-year period. Importantly, they do not require manufacturers to declare the total value of their goods — or the destination of their goods, or the intended "end user" of the military equipment.
The report judges that OIELS are "likely to increase the risk of breaches of the Government's own arms export policies."
Britain is asked, for instance, to explain how the sale of military helicopters, cryptographic software and small arms ammunition to Russia is "compliant" with UK licensing criteria — despite the fact that separate export licenses to Russia for sniper rifles and body armor were revoked last summer.
"We would take the view that anything that goes to the Russian government could end up being used in Ukraine," said former UK defense secretary Sir John Stanley, who chairs the CAEC.
Britain is also asked to justify the sale of "components for military electronic equipment" to Iran.
The CAEC report draws particular attention to Britain's sale of surveillance technology, sniper rifles, tasers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to authoritarian regimes.
The UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade group has linked British military equipment "to crackdowns and human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Bahrain, Egypt, and Kuwait." For instance, British teargas has been used against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
In November, CAEC chair Sir John Stanley said that Britain had relaxed its controls on arms export licenses to "countries of concern."
The government used to refuse licenses in situations where the exported equipment might be used for "internal repression." Now, a license will only be rejected if there is a "clear risk" of international legal violation.
In March 2014, the Government deleted, from its Consolidated Criteria on arms sales, the requirement that export licenses be refused if the benefits of the deal "are outweighed… by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression."
The government has promised to respond to the MP's concerns in detail. In the meantime, a government spokesperson said, "Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment and we do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that it might be used for internal repression."
Follow Katie Engelhart @katieengelhart
Image via Flickr