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Arms to Middle East and North Africa shows failure of export controls

The UK, USA and Russia are among several countries to have supplied large quantities of weapons to repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, despite having evidence that the weapons could be used to commit serious human rights violations, Amnesty International said in a new report published today (19 Oct).

The report entitled, Arms Transfers to the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons for an effective Arms Treaty , examines arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen since 2005.

The main arms suppliers to the five countries include France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the UK and the USA.

Notably, successive UK Governments have supplied arms to Libya, Bahrain and others in the region.  It transferred more than £1 million worth of small arms to Bahrain. The transfer included assault rifles, sniper rifles, semi-automatic and non-automatic firearms and shotguns.

The UK also authorised the sale of approximately £1.5 million worth of other equipment to Bahrain in 2010, including grenade launchers, riot guns used for firing tear gas and other projectiles, or machine guns.

To Libya, the UK authorised the sale of small arms including pistols, automatic weapons and sub-machine guns (£74,258) and more than £6 million worth of ammunition between 2005 and 2010.  It also authorised the transfer of nearly £70,000 worth of equipment under the category of bombs, rockets, explosives and missiles and more than £6 million of armoured vehicles equipment.

Amnesty International’s Arms Programme Director Oliver Sprague said:

“The UK has licensed millions of pounds of military equipment to countries in the Middle East with poor human rights records.

“When we witnessed in recent months the appalling sight of security forces turning their weapons on peaceful protestors, the UK hastily suspended export licences or at least started reviewing them.

“But this was just closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.”

Amnesty also revealed that armoured crowd control vehicles seen patrolling the streets of Libya in February 2011 look identical to the ones manufactured by British company NMS International Group Ltd.  Just last year, NMS International organised the UK stand at the “LibDex 2010” arms fair in Tripoli, which it called “an ideal opportunity to showcase the best of British equipment and training” to Libyan officials.

There is no suggestion that NMS International acted illegally or supplied any of these vehicles or related equipment without the necessary arms export licences from the UK government. However, Amnesty International believes the sales raise serious questions about the UK government’s export licensing procedures.  The UK government has repeatedly said that it has found no evidence of the use of UK-supplied equipment in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East to commit human rights violations.  

Oliver Sprague commented:

“The UK Government appears to place far too much emphasis on evidence-based assessment.   If it instead focused on rigorous risk-based assessments when justifying licensing decisions the chances are fewer licences would be granted to countries where we’re now seeing serious human rights violations unfolding.”

Amnesty recognises that the international community has taken some steps this year to restrict international arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.  But the organisation said that existing arms export controls failed to prevent the transfer of arms in the preceding years.

Last week the UK Foreign Secretary announced details of the long-awaited review of the export controls, identifying six areas within export licensing controls which require strengthening.  These include enhanced oversight and risk-assessment, greater end-use monitoring and greater transparency in reporting.  While Amnesty welcomes any improvements, it is concerned that as yet no substantive detail as to how these recommendations will be taken forward has been provided.

Oliver Sprague said:

“The UK Government now has to be fully committed to the international Arms treaty currently being put together at the UN. If the treaty is as strong as we’d like it to be, there has to be robust and binding rules that prevent the sale of arms to countries where there’s a risk of them being used for human rights abuse.

“If the major arms exporters recklessly continue a ‘business as usual’ approach to arms transfers, so fuelling the human rights crises as we have witnessed across the Middle East and North African region this year, it will needlessly shatter lives and undermine global security."

A full copy of the report ‘Arms Transfers to the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons for an effective Arms Treaty’ is available upon request.
Amnesty International’s Arms Programme experts are available for interview
Photographs are available upon request

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