War is good business

A new World Peace Foundation report, Missing in Action: UK arms export controls during war and armed conflict, authored by Anna Stavrianakis, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, was published this week. Its findings are unequivocal.

Despite the UK’s commitment to a ‘rigorous and robust’ arms export control regime, the outbreak of war or conflict has had little or no restraining effect on UK arms exports. Even where violations of human rights and humanitarian law are documented, UK arms export controls have not restricted transfers in any meaningful way.

The report examines UK export patterns in the last two decades and looks at four cases of arms exports to protagonists in wars that demonstrate UK policy: to India and Pakistan in relation to Kashmir; to the Sri Lankan armed forces in the civil war; to Israel in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and to the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. “The war in Yemen,” says the report, “is the clearest example of substantial arms supplies to conflict parties in war and of the ways in which risk assessment is mobilised to facilitate increased exports.”

The WPF notes that “arms export controls do not restrict transfers. Rather than being proactively engaged to prevent the harms set out in government policy, export controls are primarily mobilised by the state to manage controversy once criticism emerges from civil society and Parliament.” They “serve a primarily legitimising function in an attempt to mollify parliamentary opposition, NGO and media criticism and domestic public opinion.” In short, they are a cosmetic exercise.

Britain is one of the world’s biggest arms exporters. Despite government claims to have one of the most robust arms export controls regimes in the world, it is invariably client demand that determines UK weapons sales. And the biggest client is believed to be Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, notes the report, the use of “open” licences, which place no financial or quantity limits on exports – and which are explicitly encouraged by the UK government – significantly obscures the overall value and volume of UK arms exports.

Among the report’s key findings are:

  • The misuse of UK-supplied weapons is a routine feature of wars involving UK customers.
  • Arms export licensing practice takes a very narrow interpretation of risk. Ceasefires or other de-escalations are interpreted to mean that there is no clear risk of misuse, and thus no reason to deny licences, which allows recipients to replenish their armouries for use in later assaults and rounds of violence.
  • Self-serving reviews of the licensing process take place only when controversy is generated. These reviews aim to validate government policy and facilitate ongoing exports rather than restrict them.
  • The UK’s licensing criteria have politically and legally ambiguous effects that ultimately serve to facilitate rather than restrict exports. In short, “The government points to the existence of regulations to argue that its policy is sound.”
  • The Committees on Arms Export Controls have played an inconsistent role in accountability, suffering from structural weaknesses, including the lack of a dedicated staff.
  • There is a mutually supportive, entrenched and organic relationship between the UK state’s geopolitical ambitions and the interests of its arms industry.

The report makes a raft of recommendations. These include an end the subsidies on arms production and export and to the privileged access of industry to state budgets and decision-making. The licensing bureaucracy should be moved out of that part of government that is responsible for international trade and a “presumption of denial” should be introduced for licences to sensitive destinations. There also needs to be improved parliamentary scrutiny of export decisions and the establishment of increased end-use monitoring of exports.

The full report can be read here, its Executive Summary here.

Image: Mike Phipps

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