One Time We Cared About Who Bought Our Arms… And Six Times We Didn’t

When it comes to propping up dictators, we’re among the best in the business.

Questions have been asked about our alleged sale of chemical weapons to Syria, and whether our licenses need to be reviewed - but let’s stick to conventional weapons now.

EU sanctions were drawn up to target the Syrian regime in May 2011 a few weeks after Bashar al-Assad had ordered the army to crush protests in the country.

They included asset freezes, travel bans for leading Syrian regime figures and unprecedented trade restrictions, combined with an embargo on the sale of all “military ammunition, weapons and goods” aimed at starving Assad of the means to repress his own people. Britain signed up to this. So we aren’t selling any arms to Syria, right? Well…

While most controlled exports to Iran are for civilian aircraft, the UK has licensed the export of more than £2.5 million worth of components for military electronic equipment. Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been on the ground, supporting regime forces, in Syria. And guess to whom Iran also sells military equipment? See also…

Outstanding licences for exports to Russia are valued at £86,329,387. These include small arms and components and related equipment for small arms, including sniper rifles and small arms ammunition (worth over £3 million).

The UK has issued an open licence (which places no limit on the scale of exports) for technology for a wide range of equipment such as missiles, combat aircraft, combat helicopters, fire-control equipment, combat vehicles, tanks and weapon sights. The Committees on Arms Exports Controls said in July the contracts should be examined both on grounds of “internal oppression” and “prolonging regional conflicts”.

So if we were to put boots on the ground in Syria, we’ll presumably be attacked by an army using some weapons we indirectly sold them, and it’ll have started over a conflict our previous arms sales helped prolong. Short of firing our own cruise missiles at the Ministry of Defence while prank calling Vladimir Putin it’s not easy to see how we could make life more difficult for ourselves.

And that’s not even the best bit: Russia and Iran aren’t even our most dubious customers.

With reports of torture, disappearances and political violence, Belarus is Europe’s “last dictatorship”. Belarus is the only country in Europe which still executes people. The death penalty, along with the routine imprisonment of political opponents, the torture of detainees, and political show trials, are cited by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office as reasons why “Europe’s last dictatorship” is on their list of “countries of concern” for human rights and democracy.

Before 2010, the UK gave Belarus the green light to buy some £2.9m worth of British arms exports, including weapon sights, navigation systems and cryptography kit - the biggest haul it had bought off the UK in years. By July 2011, the EU had placed an arms embargo on Belarus over the deteriorating human rights situation. The sales stopped.

Relationship over. Except it wasn’t. We instead struck up a military relationship with the government, inviting Belarusian officers to this country next year for training in how to manage Belarus’s weapons stockpile, under the auspices of the UK Joint Arms Control Implementation Group.

We couldn’t sell them the kit any more - but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sure they use the stuff they do have properly.

Last year, the UK licensed 200 sniper rifles for export to Egypt. Some licenses have been cancelled, but others, such as £43m for helicopter parts, were unaffected by the coup. The Egyptian army attended 2011’s London’s Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition where they could look at anti-protester kit, drones and armoured cards. It’s like one of those video game expos, but there are fewer booth babes and more tanks. Will they be invited to this year’s?

There are also open licenses to sell to Egypt, which means the public record doesn’t distinguish between technical equipment and things like machine guns. Vince Cable was going to review this, then decided not to, because meh, who cares, right?

Last month at least 500 Egyptian protesters were killed on behalf of the government.

The authorities in Colombo have bought British small arms and weaponry worth at least £3m in the last year.

Some of the items sold include pistols, rifles, assault rifles, body armour and combat shotguns – despite the Foreign Office still classifying the South Asian nation as a “country of concern” for rights abuses and the behaviour of his armed forces during the brutal last few months of the 2009 civil war.

The conflict was the culmination of a 30-year conflict with violent Tamil Tiger separatists and resulted in the deaths of between 60,000 and 100,000 people over a four-month period, most of whom were civilians.

On the plus side, still a glorious holiday destination. Which, bluntly, is why this kind of thing just doesn’t matter to us.

Hard to believe, but we were selling Zimbabwe arms right up to the turn of the century. In 1984, the Thatcher government sold Zimbabwe a large number of Hawk fighter airplanes. Mugabe had not then been revealed as the monster he turned out to be, though there had been reports of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of his enemies in Matabeleland.

By the year 2000, Mugabe had already embarked on the illegal seizure of white-owned farms, which led to widespread malnutrition and starvation. And in that same year, Tony Blair approved the supply of spare parts for the now-ageing Hawk aircraft. Labour continued to sell armoured Land Rover Defenders at a cut price to the Zimbabwean government (John Major began this). We only stopped the licenses in 2000.

Two years later, Mugabe would attack Blair at a speech in Rome, saying: “Keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”

How’s that for gratitude? Blair didn’t reply: “We’ve tried our best.”

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