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Missing in Action: UK arms export controls during war and armed conflict

UK arms supplies to Ukraine are unusual in not favouring an aggressive, abusive state. Anna Stavrianakis argues that ethical arms export controls remain a convenient fiction and proposes four things Britain could do to shift from managing controversy to reducing harm.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has panicked western states into contortions over the extent and character of military support they should be offering for Ukraine’s defence. Reluctant to send soldiers into combat, but nonetheless desperate to be seen be supporting Ukraine, many states have increased their military aid and arms transfers. Weapons such as small arms and light weapons and anti-tank missiles have been delivered on the premise that they are for defensive purposes. Wilder promises of bigger and more advanced equipment, such as Soviet-designed fighter jets from eastern EU and NATO member states, may come to nothing due to the risk of escalation.

The atmosphere in UK public debate is a mixture of boasting – about the UK’s supposedly leading role, with which European states are slowly catching up – and inconsistent, ill-thought through suggestions – such as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ support for UK nationals to go and fight in Ukraine, which the MoD is now working hard to row back from. The clamorous calls to do something conveniently sideline the extent to which the UK state has been doing plenty all along to facilitate Russia’s kleptocracy and influence on UK policy.

In the context of a clear case of international aggression, it may seem jarring to speak critically about UK arms exports, given the imperatives of supporting Ukrainian self-defence. But the tenor and content of the debate in Britain also make it a good time to step back and think about what we know about the arms trade, UK export policy, and what warning signs we ought to heed. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a major traditional recipient of UK weapons. The war in Ukraine is, in fact, a contrasting case compared to the majority of UK arms exports. The truth is, the UK is typically the one arming the state committing the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in war and conflict.

Managing controversy

What we know about the world’s largest arms suppliers – the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Spain, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ukraine – is that there is “very little evidence that war or armed conflict leads to restraint in arms transfers …, regardless of whether their stated policies suggest they should.” That is, all major arms exporters – whether they have obligations to protect human rights and international humanitarian law like western states do, or not – have supplied weapons into pretty much every war of the 21st century.

In short, ethical export policy is a myth; money beats morals, and relationships are key. Nonetheless, the UK’s commitments to human rights and international humanitarian law remain important: not because they are meaningful in shaping policy in a restrictive way, but because they are central to the justifications and legitimation of UK arms exports and war-fighting.

The UK itself has – officially – been involved in three wars in the last two decades (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya), each of which has been politically contested as a strategic failure of questionable lawfulness, and each of which has contributed to the proliferation of weapons in each country and regionally. Of the UK’s arms customers – which are mainly to be found amongst NATO allies, Middle Eastern and Asian states – three of the top 10 since 1990 are partners in wars the UK has been involved in (the United States, Canada, Italy) and three are clients that are themselves involved in wars (Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey). So substantial arms sales to countries involved in war are typical of UK export policy – they are not an exception. The primary factor in UK sales is demand from client states. Yet the UK government claims to have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world.

The UK’s commitments to conflict prevention and the protection of human rights and international humanitarian law in its arms export controls are now over twenty years old – and very loudly proclaimed. Yet the misuse of UK-supplied weapons is a routine feature of wars involving UK customers: take the examples of UK arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition involved in the war in Yemen; to Israel in relation to the occupation of Palestine; to Sri Lanka during its civil war; and to India and Pakistan during their confrontations over Kashmir.

The current system of arms export licensing is broken: risk assessments treat each round of violence as new and a blank slate. Ceasefires or other de-escalations are interpreted to mean that there is no clear risk of misuse, and thus no reason to deny licences, which allows recipients to replenish their armouries for use in later assaults and rounds of violence. When NGOs, journalists and MPs generate controversy about exports, the government conducts self-serving reviews of licensing process – but not policy. Occasionally, when violence escalates to extreme levels and external pressure mounts, the government makes tokenistic refusals or revocations of licences.

Overall, arms export controls primarily serve as window-dressing and are invoked to manage controversy, rather than proactively mobilised to prevent the harms as set out in government policy.

Mutually supportive interests

What drives this? A combination of the state’s strategic and geopolitical interest in trying to remain a major military power, and arms industry influence. There is a mutually supportive and entrenched relationship between the UK state’s geopolitical ambitions and the interests of UK-based industry. There is a reciprocally convenient fiction of separation between the two, in which companies hide behind the policymaking and licensing role of the state, and the state refuses to comment on company practice under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

The arms industry plays a crucial yet hidden role in ongoing state support for exports, but this support is not reducible simply to industry interests. Rather, the combination of industry influence and the state’s preoccupation with strategic power generates a congruence of interests and assumptions about the benefits of arms exports.

More effective controls

So what would more effective controls on UK arms exports involve?

First, reining in the state’s grandiose geopolitical ambitions. This seems a massive task, but there are plenty of organisations working on more just and sustainable forms of security. Britain has many opportunities to redefine its role in a more progressive direction.

Second, reducing the influence of industry on the state. For example, ending the privileged access that industry representatives have to policymakers, and shutting down UK Defence and Security Exports, the government unit responsible for promoting arms sales.

Third, changing the bureaucratic architecture of the state to prioritise restraint rather than export promotion. For example, moving the Export Control Joint Unit, which issues arms export licences, out of the Department for International Trade, and into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – but on the proviso that pro-control actors are given greater institutional weight than they currently have.

Fourth, improving accountability for bad decisions. This can come through parliamentary scrutiny. The Committees on Arms Export Controls have occasionally generated robust criticism of government policy and practice. However, their energy, expertise and competence have varied over time. Transforming the CAEC into a full standing Select Committee would be a significant positive development.

Political will is key in all this. The key issue is the absence of collective political motivation to address the economic, political and social costs of UK arms export policy. Lack of expertise, information or creative alternatives is not the issue. Many credible policy recommendations have been made by actors external and sometimes internal to the state over the years. They have rarely been put into action.


Anna Stavrianakis’ report, “Missing in Action: UK arms export controls during war and armed conflict”, is published by the World Peace Foundation.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Plymouth Campaign Against The Arms Trade.

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