UK Government's human rights report shows failures to stop arms getting into the wrong hands

My advocacy colleagues have been enjoying the lavish surroundings of the Foreign and Commonwealth office today, following the launch of the FCO’s annual report on human rights and democracy.

It’s a publication that we think is important: it shows the UK government’s commitment to human rights and allows them to explain their approach and the work that the FCO is doing. It holds other countries to account for their own failings in this area. And of course it offers us NGOs an opportunity to hold the UK government to account too.

Most of the press conference concerned the ‘defection’ of Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Koussa. It was encouraging that William Hague stated on record that Mr Koussa, one of the highest-ranking officials in the Libyan government, will receive no immunity from prosecution under international justice.

He also gave an encouraging response to a question about UK arms export licences to Libya, the granting of which is increasingly looking like a very bad decision, given reports that said equipment has been turned on the Libyan people. The licences will, said Hague, be reviewed. A bit late, but welcome all the same.

What is clear from the new FCO report is that the Government takes an inconsistent approach to export licensing for arms. Take Yemen, for example. It’s mentioned specifically in the FCO report, around the decision to revoke licences for armoured vehicles in 2010. Yet Amnesty produced credible evidence (subsequently verified by WikiLeaks documents from the US State Department) of the role of Saudi Arabia’s Air Force in carrying out indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas in Yemen November 2009. Was action taken against the Saudis? Were their licenses revoked? No. Saudi Arabia was added, with minimal scrutiny, to a new Open General license to allow spare parts to be exported for these combat aircraft.

Our main concern, though, is with an apparent change in the system for granting export licences. Licences should be rejected where there is a clear risk that equipment would be used to commit human rights abuses. That much is just common sense.

Yet it seems, from this report, that actual evidence of the same equipment having already been used for abuse is often required before a licence is denied. This is patently ridiculous: if a government like Libya’s, known to abuse its citizens, hasn’t had access to, say, UK-made armoured personnel carriers before, then of course they won’t have been used to commit abuses. Similarly if the regime hasn’t had mass protests to deal with which have given them the opportunity to commit such abuses.

The sensible system, one which is premised on protecting human rights rather than facilitating as many arms exports as possible, is to deny arms export licences where there is a real risk that they will be used for abuse.

Changing the policy from a risk-based to an evidence-based system has seriously weakened arms controls and made it easier for dangerous equipment to get into the hands of known human rights abusers. And we’ve been seeing the results of that on the streets – and in the hospitals – of cities across North Africa and the Middle East.

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