Britain sold over £1m worth of weapons including rifles and artillery to Gulf kingdom during last year’s unrest
Britain has continued to sell arms to Bahrain despite continuing political unrest in the Gulf state, new official figures disclose.
According to the figures the government approved the sale of military equipment valued at more than £1m in the months following the violent crackdown on demonstrators a year ago. They included licences for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft.
Also cleared for export to Bahrain between July and September last year were naval guns and components for detecting and jamming improvised explosive devices. No export licences were refused.
Security forces in Bahrain fired teargas and stun grenades at protesters in pre-dawn skirmishes before Tuesday’s first anniversary of the uprising in the Gulf kingdom. Armoured vehicles patrolled the capital, Manama, in a security clampdown after protesters flung volleys of petrol bombs at police cars. There was also a massive police presence in Shia Muslim villages ringing Manama, with helicopters buzzing overhead, underlining the concerns of the Sunni-Muslim-led monarchy about a new explosion of civil unrest by Bahrain’s disgruntled Shia majority.
After the exposure a year ago of Britain’s approval of arms sales, including crowd control equipment, guns, and ammunition to Bahrain, Libya and Egypt, the government revoked 158 export licences, including 44 covering military exports to Bahrain.
The latest figures, published on the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills website, also show that during the third quarter of last year Britain exported arms valued at more than £1m to Saudi Arabia, including components for military combat vehicles and turrets. During last year’s uprising, Saudi Arabia sent forces to Bahrain in British military trucks.
Britain also supplied equipment, including components for military combat vehicles, weapons night sights, communications and rangefinding, valued at more than £1m, to Egypt’s armed forces.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, admitted to a committee of MPs last week: “We do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records … We do business with repressive governments and there’s no denying that.”
He was giving evidence to the Commons committee on arms export controls whose chairman, the former Conservative defence minister Sir John Stanley, accused the government of adopting a “rosy-tinted” and “over-optimistic” approach to authoritarian regimes.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, told the committee that Saudi forces were sent into Bahrain last year “to guard installations but not to take part in dealing with unrest in Bahrain so they did not fall foul [of the export guidelines]”.
On Saudi Arabia, Hague said the government had raised concerns about its treatment of women and foreign workers. But 99% of Britain’s exports to the kingdom consisted of Typhoon jets. “They are not relevant to our concerns about these rights,” the foreign secretary said.
Cable announced that the government had reviewed its system of monitoring arms exports and that in future ministers would be able to “suspend” arms exports quickly in the event of political upheaval or a regional crisis.
Sarah Waldron, campaign co-ordinator for CAAT, the campaign against the arms trade, said: “The UK seems to have learned absolutely nothing from the last year. In the glare of media attention in February last year it revoked some arms licences – but the latest figures show it was quickly back to business as usual.”
A decision by the Obama administration to agree a $1m arms sale to Bahrain was attacked last week by Human Rights Watch.
“Bahrain has made many promises to cease abuses and hold officials accountable, but it hasn’t delivered,” said Maria McFarland, the group’s deputy Washington director. “Protesters remain jailed on criminal charges for peacefully speaking out and there has been little accountability for torture and killings – crimes in which the Bahrain Defence Force is implicated.”
The US state department said the equipment included spare parts and maintenance of equipment needed for Bahrain’s external defence and support of US Navy Fifth Fleet operations. But the US, in common with the UK, has not made public a full list of equipment to be supplied to Bahrain, or elsewhere.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The government takes its export responsibilities very seriously, and operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world. All licence applications are considered on a case by case basis against agreed international criteria. Each assessment we make takes into account the intended end use of the equipment, the behaviour of the end user … We pay particular attention to allegations of human rights abuses.”
The Commons arms export controls committee said in a stinging report last year: “Both the present government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in north Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression.”