Mon, Oct 16, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Human rights concerns fail to stop UK arms flow


The British government is exporting record levels of military equipment to 19 of the 20 states its own ministers and officials have just identified as "major countries of concern" for human rights abuses.

The 20 countries were listed in the British Foreign Office's annual Human Rights Report, which was launched by the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, last week. They include China, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.

But the government's arms export records reveal that concerns over human rights appear not to have prevented ministers from approving tens of millions of pounds of military sales to those same regimes. For instance, on China the report stated: "The Chinese authorities continue to violate a range of basic human rights. The use of the death penalty remains extensive and non-transparent; torture is widespread."

Yet, despite the existence of a EU arms embargo, ministers approved strategic export licences -- which are needed to sell military items abroad -- for China worth almost ?70 million (US$130 million) between July last year and June this year.

According to the UK government's own record of export licences, between January and March this year ministers approved the sale to China of military aero-engines, military communications equipment and "technology to build combat aircraft." It also sold Beijing gun mountings and components for military vehicles and "components for nuclear reactors."

The EU embargo prohibits countries from selling "whole" weapons such as missiles and aircraft, although it does allow the sale of parts.

Other countries whose human rights records concern the Foreign Office, but that still receive arms exports from the UK, include Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Russia, where more than ?40 million of military equipment was exported last year. On Russia, the Foreign Office report stated: "Human rights defenders continue to be gravely concerned by actions taken by authorities ... The North Caucasus ... remains one of Europe's most serious human rights issues."

Yet, last year, ministers authorized export licences to Russia worth ?10 million. These included military cargo and utility vehicles, sniper rifles, gun silencers, shotguns and components for military aircraft navigation equipment.

The analysis of military exports was carried out by Saferworld, the human rights campaign group.

"This once again highlights the incoherence of UK policy which could result in British military equipment being used to commit human rights abuses abroad," said Claire Hickson, Saferworld's head of communications.

At the launch of the report, Beckett said: "This report would set down what we were doing to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world. And it would be something by which the public, the NGO community and the media could hold us as a government to account."

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