Arms exports from UK raise questions, MPs say

Sri Lankan Army patrol Arms licences to Sri Lanka included pistols, small arms ammunition and 600 assault rifles

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The UK government has approved more than 3,000 export licences for military sales to countries which it believes have questionable records on human rights, MPs say.

The House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls says the value of the existing export licences to the 27 countries in question exceeds £12bn.

This includes significant sales to China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Sales to Sri Lanka raise "very serious questions", the report adds.

The committees consist of four select committees meeting and working together: business, defence, foreign affairs, and international development.

The chairman, Conservative MP Sir John Stanley, said he was astonished at the scale and value of the licences.

'Clear risk'

Sir John Stanley: "Are elements of [Israel's] licence for equipment which could be used for internal repression?"

There were, for example, more than 60 licences for Iran, including components for military electronics and what is described as "equipment employing cryptography".

This appears to be a catch-all term which encompasses a variety of equipment, much of it in the telecommunications sector.

Similar equipment figured prominently in China's £1.4bn worth of licences, which also included some small arms ammunition, even though there is a European Union arms embargo on Beijing.

Sir John told the BBC that in his view the EU embargo "was not drafted as widely as many people would wish".

Arms licences to Sri Lanka included pistols, small arms ammunition and approval for the sale of 600 assault rifles, which he said "raised very serious questions".

Start Quote

The government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights”

End Quote MPs' report

The report urges the UK government to look again at all the 134 existing UK export licences to Egypt to ensure that they do not breach the current policy, which is not to issue licences where it feels "there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression".

The committees also want more detail on a sales licence granted to Israel earlier this year for the purchase of £7.7bn worth of what is described as "equipment employing cryptography and software for equipment employing cryptography".

This one licence granted in February 2013 accounted for well over 50% of the value of all existing licences to the countries in question.

The committees also comment on military sales to Argentina.

The UK has adopted a restrictive policy for such sales and the committees note that: "It is reprehensible that the UK government is unwilling to lobby other (friendly) governments to make the same changes in (their) arms export policies towards Argentina."

The committees have asked the government to report back and give assurances that arms export licences to all the countries mentioned are in tune with policy.

The report concludes: "Whilst the promotion of arms exports and the upholding of human rights are both legitimate government policies, the government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time, rather than claiming, as the government continues to do, that these two policies 'are mutually reinforcing'."

'Information security'

"Cryptography" is a term that appears frequently in the arms licensing data.

It appears to refer to technology which can be applied to a variety of tasks, encapsulating the "dual-use" problem - technology which can be used for peaceful purposes but which equally could have a security or military role.

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokeswoman said cryptography was "a means of ensuring information security, ie preventing unauthorised access to data".

There was, she explained, "a huge range of commercial applications that use cryptography, from public mobile telephony, online shopping and banking, through to providing secure networks for businesses and governments. Commercial applications account for the vast majority of licences under the cryptography category."

These commercial applications, she stressed did "not raise any concerns with respect to internal repression or conflict".

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