Arms exports examined

UK approved arms exports to Armenia and Azerbaijan

The UK has approved exports for military equipment and ammunition to both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the past year, the two nations currently fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

This is despite the UK being signed up to an arms embargo to both nations. 

Government data reveals that, since 2010, the UK Department for International Trade has approved the sale of £85.9m of security exports to Azerbaijan and £4.2m to Armenia. Military items sold to Azerbaijan include aerial target equipment, assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, small arms ammunition and targeting equipment. To Armenia, the UK approved the sale of military vehicles, gun silencers and small arms ammunition.  

Most recently, small arms ammo was supplied to Armenia in the first quarter of 2020. The year before, it approved more than £9,000 worth of body armour and military helmets to Azerbaijan, as well as supplying an air-traffic-control system.

Both nations have been involved in heavy fighting since September. The BBC reported that since last month’s escalation in military activity, nearly 500 people have been killed, including more than 60 civilians.

The territorial dispute in the southern Caucasus over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has persisted over three decades. This region is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, but it is ethnically majority-Armenian and since 1991 it has effectively been controlled by Armenian separatists backed by the Armenian government. Nagorno-Karabakh provides crucial transit routes for gas and oil on the international market.

In 1992, in response to the conflict, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) asked its members to impose an embargo on arms deliveries to forces engaged in the Nagorno-Karabakh area, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan (who are themselves OSCE members). The embargo was voluntary and has been ignored by Turkey, who have supplied arms to Azerbaijan, and Russia, who have predominantly exported to Armenia but more recently began selling weapons to Azerbaijan.

The UK signed up to the 1992 embargo but in 2014 revised its interpretation. Describing the South Caucasus as “an area of strategic importance to the UK”, then Minister for Europe, David Lidington, told parliament of plans to water down the UK’s prohibition of exports. 

“For the supply of military list equipment which does not have the technical capacity to be used or modified for use in the Nagorno-Karabakh region or on the land border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Government will consider licence applications… Supplies of military list equipment to other end-users; such as humanitarian, peacekeeping, research or media organisations, will not be considered subject to the embargo unless there is a clear risk of diversion to the armed forces, police or security forces of either state,” Lidington said in 2014.

In response to the violence, Britain and Canada issued a joint statement on the “urgent need to end” the fighting. Canada went a step further and suspended all export licences, related to drone technology, to Turkey. It followed reports that Ankara had deployed dozens of unmanned drones against Armenia forces.

UPDATE: Responding to our findings, a spokesperson for the Department of International Trade, told the BBC: “The Government rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.

“We comply with the OSCE arms embargo relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is considered as part of our export licence assessment process and we continue to monitor developments in the region closely.”