Arms exports examined

UK arms exports to Libya

Libya: Country overview
The oil-rich country of Libya is located in northern Africa, bordering Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Libyan population stands at 6.4 million people. A popular uprising in 2011 led to the removal, and later murder, of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, ending his 42-year rule over the country. The opposition toppling the dictator was supported by a NATO-led military intervention.

Since 2011, the country has been characterized by instability and a lack of central governmental control. Currently, two competing governmental entities (the Tripoli-based and UN-supported Government of National Accord, and the interim government based in eastern Libya) fight for legitimacy and territorial control. The reality on the ground, however, is that large areas of the country are controlled by tribes and local militias. Due to the power vacuum, militant Islamists, including affiliates of the Islamic State, have managed to gain strongholds in the country.

During the political instability in 2011, the UN and the EU imposed an arms embargo on Libya. The arms embargo was partially rescinded in late 2011, allowing select arms transfers under the condition that the UN Sanctions Committee be notified, and that the transfer is in the interest of non-lethal military equipment or arms for the security of the Libyan interim government.

As of 2018, Libya is yet to both ratify and sign the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Libya has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
As seen below, the number of arms licences granted by the UK government to Libya has varied a great deal, possibly given the political situation in the country. In 2010, just before the turmoil that led to Gaddafi’s overthrow, the number of arms licences peaked, reaching 95 licences. Since then, it has ebbed and flowed over the years. Despite the embargoes, 2013 and 2014 saw the second and third highest number of arms licences in the decade, reaching 47 and 33, respectively. In recent years, the sales have however decreased, reaching just 13 in 2017.
In total, from 2008 to 2017, a total of 284 arms licences were approved to Libya.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
The value of the weaponry and dual-use goods exported to Libya saw its highest spike in 2010 at the onset of the Arab Spring and the beginning of the British Coalition government. In that single year, the UK sold 44% of the last decade’s exports to Libya. The issuing of licences dramatically dropped after the Arab Spring and it has remained relatively steady since then.
In total, from 2008 to 2017, £76.3m worth of arms was exported from the UK to Libya. 

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Libya?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below.
During the last decade, 79.6% of the value of Libyan arms exports corresponded to dual-use materials, which largely includes types of surveillance equipment and various communications systems.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
The human rights situation in Libya is highly concerning in countless ways. Since 2011, the country has been subject to armed violence and abuses, in most cases at the expense of the civilians. Tribal groups and militias, often associated with either of the two competing governments, completely disregard human rights and are responsible for arbitrary detentions, torture, unlawful killings, and other ill-treatment. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, who pass by Libya on their way to Europe are reportedly often subject to torture and sexual crimes, often committed by security guards.

Privacy has become a paramount concern in recent years. Several reports pointed out that actors, from non-state actors to government-affiliated actors, have threatened the private spaces of the citizens by entering homes without judicial authorization. This has led the US Department of States to report that “invasion of privacy left citizens vulnerable to targeted attacks based on political affiliation, ideology, and identity”.

Despite these remarks, the UK has continued to sell surveillance material, cryptography equipment, and software – items that constitute the majority of the total UK arms export to Libya. This illustrates the dangers of modern arms trade, as exports under the guise of ‘dual-use’ items can constitute equally a threat to a population’s human rights as conventional military equipment. It is problematic that the UK government does not consider this threat, or worse, ignores it when approving these exports.

What has the British government said about these concerns?
Being on the FCO’s list of ‘human rights priority countries’, the UK has explicitly addressed what they call a ‘worsening human rights situation’ in Libya. Among the human rights violations that take place, the FCO highlights the “intimidation, detentions, and assassinations of journalists and human rights defenders” along with the killing of civilians in street fighting and tribal clashes.

The FCO stresses that it supports a human rights process in Libya and that they have “re-focused our support to Libya on political participation programmes (…) and supporting civil society organisations involved in transitional justice issues in Libya, including the mapping of human rights abuses”.

Before 2011, the UK government had for years considered Libya as a ‘high priority market’ and with close trade ties, the UK has been an important arms exporter to Libya.
The UK government revoked several outstanding arms licences during the turmoil in 2011 but resumed its arms sale in 2013, where the UKTI DSO, for instance, hosted an arms fair in Tripoli.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Libya.  Human rights abuses continue.
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