UK Arms: New report reveals major loophole in British arms export controls

The report reveals that the government is applying weaker controls to the export of components, compared to the export of full weapons systems. These double standards allow British-sold weapons components to end up in countries where they could ultimately be used to violate human rights. The report is released as part of the Control Arms Campaign led by Oxfam, Amnesty International and IANSA.

Figures contained in the report - the first analysis of its kind - show that since 1998 there has been an eleven-fold increase (1100%) in the number of arms components licensed for export. The 11-fold increase is in the number of different components licensed to different countries as listed in the government's annual reports.

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. The government has refused repeated requests to release the total number of all components sold to each country. The loophole has allowed British arms components to be sold to a list of countries including Zimbabwe, Israel, Indonesia, Colombia, Nepal and the Philippines.

'These aren't simply nuts and bolts we're selling, these components include firing mechanisms, bomb making equipment, guidance systems and gun barrels. It is these deadly components that are key parts of full weapons, without which they would be unusable. The government has put lives at risk by setting up false and dangerous double standards. Whether a machine-gun comes in pieces or ready made- the suffering it can cause in the wrong hands is just the same', said Justin Forsyth, Oxfam Director of Policy.

'Components for deadly weapons are being sold to known human rights abusers. It doesn't take much to re-assemble them. And from there it takes even less to kill, to torture or to rape at gunpoint. This loophole must be closed immediately,' said Lesley Warner, Amnesty International UK Media Director.

Rather than closing the loophole, the government has, over time, expanded it. In 2002, Jack Straw formally changed arms export guidance by introducing new criteria for licensing decisions on components. Rather than solely basing decisions to export arms components on human rights, conflict and poverty considerations, new criteria were introduced to assess potential deals against their importance for the arms industry. Since Jack Straw's decision, the number of arms components licensed for export has doubled.

'These new criteria allow arms components to go to a whole host of countries where human rights abuses are common. It seems that the government is attending to the needs of the British defence industry, above the human rights of people living in countries where the weapons will be used', said Rebecca Peters, Director of IANSA.

The new criteria allowed the sale of British-manufactured Head up Display Units for incorporation into F-16 fighter jets to be sold on to Israel by the US. These components are used to target Israeli bombs and these jets have been used many times in the West Bank and Gaza. There is plentiful evidence that the F-16s have been used against civilians.

As the Israeli case shows, the double standards mean that British components can be built into weapons systems abroad and then sold onto destinations to which Britain would not sell direct.

Not only are these loopholes weakening UK arms licensing controls, they are also undermining international arms embargoes.

The EU-embargo covering the Democratic Republic of Congo - a country in which war has killed three million people since 1998 - is interpreted by the British government to allow the ongoing sale of components.

The government's 2001 Annual Report on Strategic Export Controls states that, 'the government will take into account the wider implications of forcing UK companies to break existing obligations.' This means that British-supplied weaponry could continue to be serviced and updated by British companies, even if it were being used in the conflict.

The report Lock, Stock and Barrel, written by Oxfam on behalf of the Control Arms Campaign, shows that exports of components rather than entire weapons systems creates a smokescreen that hides the true extent of the British Arms. This is particularly true for small arms. Unlike the sale of assembled small arms, there is no reporting of the number of components being sold. This means that the public has no idea whether Britain is selling one shotgun barrel to a farmer or all the necessary components for a massive arsenal capable of starting a war.

In the report, Oxfam, Amnesty International and IANSA call on the British government to tighten up their arms export policy and treat components in the same way as complete systems. The organisations say that Britain should back the international Arms Treaty, already supported by many countries world-wide, to ensure that everyone in the world is playing by the same rules.

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