Arms exports examined

UK approves military exports to 80% of countries on own restricted list

Britain has approved exports of military goods to 80% of the countries on its own embargoed, sanctioned or trade restricted list in just over five years, new analysis reveals. 

Of the 73 destinations that the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) lists as “subject to arms embargo, trade sanctions and other trade restrictions”, 58 have had approval to receive goods that fall under ‘military use exports’ between January 2015 and June 2020. 

More than 4,800 licences have been approved in that time, worth some £2.6 billion of military-use exports to the 58 trade-restricted countries. A majority (69%) of these licenses were for the exportation of high-value items such as aircraft, helicopters and drones. But flying under the radar are £300m-plus worth of approved sales of small arms, explosives and crowd control equipment, going to dozens of nations on the DIT’s embargoed and restricted list. 

Countries face trade restrictions on UK weapon exports for a number of reasons. Some are subject to specific UN or EU embargoes, such as Libya, Belarus and China. Others are under regional restrictions, like the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons embargo signed by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A few are UK-specific – for example, a prohibition on any exports to the Argentine military. In all cases,  inclusion on the 73-strong list signals the UK government’s distrust of the security or human rights situation of that country.

Despite such signalling, arms export licenses have been issued to 14 countries from the DIT’s restricted list that also feature on the 30-strong Foreign Office (FCDO) “Human rights priority countries” list. The line between the UK condemning a country for its human rights violations and courting that country for the arms trade is a fine one: five of the UK’s human rights priority countries feature on the DIT’s ‘key markets’ directory for potential arms sales (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

Trade does seem to trump human rights concerns. UK export licences for small arms and ammunition have been approved to 31 destinations on the embargoed and restricted list, including assault rifles, pistols, sniper rifles and shotguns. Many of these sent to areas that have recently suffered from violent conflicts or state oppression, including Kenya, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Togo, Oman, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Pakistan.

Military items specifically designated for use by armed or police forces have been approved by the UK government to 30 nations that face arms trade restrictions. As recently as April 2020, weapon sight exports were approved to law enforcement in Nigeria, despite the long record of fatal police brutality in that nation, one that led to the #endSARS protests breaking out in October last year. According to the Council on Foreign Relations last April, at least 1,476 people had been killed by Nigerian state actors in the 12 months preceding. 

But it seems that the UK government’s Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) has a blind spot when it comes to authorising weapon exports to countries where human rights abuses are rife. In 2017, 3,000 assault rifles were authorised for export to Kenya for “government end use”, worth £9.5m. The year before, according to Amnesty International, Kenyan ‘security forces carried out enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture with impunity, killing at least 122 people’.

More than 650 sniper rifles were also licenced for export to the military in Pakistan between 2016 and 2019. Last year the FCDO named Pakistan as a human rights priority country, citing the alleged torture by security forces of two journalists reporting on quarantine facilities. 

In Kashmir, the Indian military is reportedly stepping up their own imports of sniper rifles in response to a “sustained sniping” campaign by Pakistani forces. In 2017, a licence for two sniper rifles was approved for military use in India, meaning it’s possible that Indian and Pakistani forces could be sniping each other with British-sold rifles. 

960 ‘machine guns’ were also approved for export to Trinidad & Tobago, with four licences over four years issued worth over £1million. It’s unclear which models these were as the UK does not currently produce any machine guns. It’s possible that the sale was of surplus Sterling submachine guns, standard issue within the British military until 1994. According to the Bonn International Center for Conversion, the weapon is still used in 63 countries, including by the infantry in Trinidad & Tobago. 

Whether the weapons sent are secure in their hands is questionable; a 2009 Small Arms Survey report stated that there had been “many cases” of Trinidadian police leasing out their guns, with fees based on “the size of the anticipated earnings from the crime that the borrower intends to commit.”

Sales of crowd control equipment such as riot shields, tear gas, projectile launchers and even sniper rifles to the Hong Kong Police Force were repeatedly rubber-stamped, up until March 2019 – the same month thousands took to the streets to protest the extradition law that is being used to silence opposition parties. In the first week of 2021, 53 prominent pro-democracy activists were arrested for their activism. After allegations of police brutality in 2019, the UK suspended sales of crowd control equipment to the territory. 

In 2015, a £2.3m export to armed forces in Lebanon was approved for 48 sniper rifles, complete with silencers and night sights. The military would later be instrumental in repressing anti-corruption protests in October 2019, even firing on peaceful activists according to Amnesty International.

Tools of repression?

A common feature of EU or UN arms embargoes is a prohibition of “any equipment that might be used for internal repression”. Yet exports of sniper rifles, riot shields and small arms ammunition have been authorised for the sale to police forces implicated in attacking or even killing protesters within the past year, including Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Mali. 

Exports of military goods, albeit less directly lethal items, to Britain’s geo-political adversaries have also continued despite strict embargoes. More than £20million worth of components for combat naval vessels, such as military radars, have been approved to China, earmarked for “end use by the Navy.” Hundreds of licences for imaging cameras (most likely thermal) have been issued, although some have since been revoked – potentially for their use in “internal repression”, a condition of the 1989 EU embargo.

Similarly, navigation equipment was authorised for “armed forces end use” in Russia in 2016, despite a 2014 EU embargo that included “dual use items for military use”. Then in 2018, a year after the establishment of a 2017 EU embargo, navigational items were also approved to be sent to Venezuela for “Navy and armed forces end use”.

A UK prohibition on items to the Argentine military has not stopped licences being given for riot shields to law enforcement in the country on multiple occasions. 


One salient feature of AOAV’s investigation was the repeated revelation that the public documentation of UK military export controls is opaque and inconsistently labelled. It’s possible some of the above exportations were intended for diplomatic, humanitarian or ecological missions; many licences on the annual reports are labelled with such explanatory notes and it could be that in the above reported exports, such notes were not included. Other export licenses that are most likely for humanitarian purposes, such as assault rifles and grenades to the UN-mission in South Sudan, are presented with no context about the intended end user. 

Such arbitrary categorisation on the part of the UK government means that meaningful public scrutiny of the type and intended use and end-user of arms exports is inhibited.


Whilst the public records produced by the DIT may be lacklustre, the same cannot be said for the department’s efforts to facilitate domestic arms dealers trading internationally. For a small fee, arms traders can be provided with a bespoke market brief for any country in the world to help them break into that nation’s defence sector. 

Take Serbia, who are subject to UK trade controls on small arms and drones: in 2013, the government produced a market brief, encouraging traders to enter the Serbian arms market. The document is detailed, but more specific queries can be directed to the dedicated defence attache based at the embassy in Belgrade, whose offered services include: establishing contacts, hosting product presentations at the embassy or their residence, or arranging business receptions with Serbian officials.

Since this document was published, licences worth more than £84million for drones, equipment for military aircraft and missile launchers have been approved for Serbia. These deals have made the Balkan state the third largest spender from our list of 58 restricted importers. The UK government does not appear deterred by the US embassy’s warning that the infamous Serbian arms dealer, Slobodan Tesic, still has “potential influence over Serbia’s export control system”. 

Surplus materiels

There is also impetus within the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to export equipment around the world. The Defence Equipment Sales Authority sells off surplus materiel, to raise revenue for the MOD and to “provide defence engagement opportunities as a result of our sales activity.”

In 2018, the HMS Ocean was sold to the Brazilian Navy for £84 million. At the time of writing, militaries and private companies the world over can express their interest in buying Sentinel and Sentry Aircraft for parts.

Components for military aircraft, naval vessels or assault vehicles have been approved to the majority of countries on the restricted list. In 2017, DIT issued an ‘open’ or ‘unlimited value’ licence for spare military support aircraft components to 57 destinations, including Cambodia, El Salvador and Uzbekistan. That’s not to say the items went to all those destinations, but the government approved their potential exportation. 


Analysis of the government’s export data often leaves one with more questions than answers. The examples listed above and in our database raise more than a few such questions, but the lack of clarity pervasive in the data works as an effective barrier to scrutiny. 

As the UK government strives to become ‘Global Britain’’ post-Brexit, such a lack of transparency and accountability in who they are exporting arms to raises thorny issues, not least regarding the preservation of human rights and the just rule of law. 

When he was Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister Boris Johnson once said other countries would “happily supply arms” to Saudi Arabia if Britain stopped doing so. Under the current system, it is clear concerns about the human rights impact of UK arms sales are governed by the same laissez-faire and morally blind principles.