Tories under pressure over use of UK troops to sell arms to Gulf states

21 Oct

The Department for International Trade (DIT) is facing calls to reveal details of its use of British troops to sell arms after it prevented the publication of the names of countries that sent delegations to watch UK soldiers carrying out demonstrations for weapons manufacturers.

Liam Fox’s department has overseen a major increase in arms sales to Gulf states including Saudi Arabia amid allegations of human rights violations in the war in Yemen. It said identifying the delegations would “prejudice the relationship between the UK and other states” and may lead to a breakdown in diplomatic relations.

A freedom of information request revealed that British forces provided by the export support team (EST) – a unit attached to Fox’s department to help promote UK arms exports – were used on 10 occasions this year to carry out demonstrations at various locations.

The included demonstrations of Firestorm targeting systems – used by Gulf coalition forces involved in airstrikes in Yemen – outside the garrison town of Larkhill for the arms company Rockwell Collins. In most other cases details of the company and potential overseas buyer were blocked, however.

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said: “This is another example of the government trying to avoid proper scrutiny of arms sales.

“It is concerning that the government has redacted so much in this freedom of information request, and raises questions on whether some countries may be facing allegations of human rights abuses.”

Gardiner added: “British taxpayers do not expect public money to be spent prepping arms sales to regimes whose identity the government is too embarrassed to reveal. It is profoundly depressing to find the secretary of state clearly so keen to prop up slumping trade figures by pushing arms sales that he doesn’t want anybody to find out about.”

Oxfam, which has also been campaigning against the use of British weapons in Yemen, said that the secrecy around the EST’s promotion of UK arms sales was very concerning and raised the question of what the government could be hiding.

“Some of the equipment listed here is in service with the United Arab Emirates, and may be used by the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen,” said Martin Butcher, Oxfam policy adviser.

“We know that the UK is fuelling the war in Yemen with arms sales in excess of £3.8bn to Saudi Arabia for its bombing campaign. The people of Yemen are in the grip of the world’s largest cholera epidemic since records began. Seven million people are just a step away from famine – and homes, hospitals and schools have been destroyed by the bombing and fighting.”

A spokesperson for the DIT said: “The government undertakes a stringent process of scrutiny and approval before issuing any formal invitations to foreign governments to attend UK defence exhibitions, and respect for human rights is a mandatory consideration. Any invitation does not mean that licences will be automatically issued for the goods exhibited.

“The UK operates one of the most robust defence export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes and we constantly review local situations.”

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