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Improvements to UK arms export controls need to go further

In response to the UK Government’s initial response to public consultations on UK arms export controls, the UK Working Group on Arms (1) welcomed the announcement of some improvements to the controls, but warned the Government must go further if it wanted to signal a new approach to UK arms exports.

“We are pleased to see that UK persons who broker small arms and light weapons will now be controlled, no matter where they are operating, as these are the principle weapons used in violent conflicts throughout the world. It is, however, disappointing that other conventional arms will not be controlled in the same way, especially when the Government itself acknowledges that unscrupulous traders can dodge UK controls ‘simply by carrying out the business from another country’ (2),” said Roy Isbister, Team Leader on Arms Transfer Controls, Saferworld.

"The Government's plans to prevent anyone trading in tools that are used to commit acts of torture is fantastic news - a real step forward to its commitment to preventing human rights abuses being perpetrated across the globe. However, it has failed to rise to the challenges posed by an increasingly globalised defence market. By not placing re-export controls on UK arms and components or controlling UK owned foreign subsidiaries operating overseas, UK arms can still end up in the hands of human rights abusers." said Oliver Sprague, Programme Director Arms Control, Amnesty International UK.

The report also failed to strengthen laws on the effects that UK’s arms exports could have on developing countries.

"Irresponsible arms transfers fuel conflict and poverty. We find it disappointing that, while the UK government has prioritised the reduction and prevention of violent conflict, there is no mention of sustainable development in this review,” said Anna Macdonald, Conflict Campaign Manager, Oxfam.

The UK Working Group on Arms broadly supported proposed changes to UK arms laws:

  • Extra-territorial brokers of small arms and light weapons and ammunition will now be covered, partially closing a loophole left open since 2001 when the Government failed to honour its manifesto commitment to control the activities of brokers wherever they are located. We remain concerned that other items of critical equipment such as military vehicles will not be controlled or that ancillary services such as transport and finance will also not be covered, especially given the significant role of transportation agents in illicit arms trafficking.
  • A torture end-use clause is very much welcome, as is placing abhorrent categories of equipment like spiked batons onto the lists of banned items. For the first time, those that knowingly trade in equipment used for torture, irrespective of whether that equipment appears on a specific list of controlled items, will fall within the law.
  • Further detailed discussions on controlling production overseas and on components and platforms such as vehicles that may be militarised once exported or misused by military and security forces is also a significant step forward.

However, the Working Group remained concerned that the key loopholes have not as yet been closed.

  • There is no requirement to ensure that equipment exported from the UK could be re-exported without the permission of the UK Government, either through licensed production overseas, or the incorporation of UK supplied components.
  • The activities of overseas subsidiaries of UK companies will not be controlled, even if those companies supply arms to countries under arms embargo to which UK is signatory.
  • The Government have failed to strengthen legal commitments to ensure that the UK's arms exports do not negatively impact on the sustainable development of developing countries

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