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UK government approves exports of sniper rifles despite human rights concerns

The UK has authorised the sale of sniper rifles to three countries identified by the Government as among the worst for human rights, according to analysis by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). 

Between 1 July 2020 and 31 March 2021, British ministers and officials granted licenses for 543 snipers and additional equipment to be exported to Bahrain, Bangladesh and Israel.

The three countries feature on the Foreign Office’s most recent list of 30 “human rights priority countries”, identified by the UK Government as being “where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where we consider the UK can make a real difference”. None are subject to sanctions. 

The data also reveals that British authorities granted licenses for sniper rifles to nine other countries with questionable human rights records, including Jordan, Kuwait and Thailand.  

Trade over Rights? 

Analysis by the London-based research charity AOAV found that British firms were authorised to export 362 sniper rifles, along with components and technology for snipers to Bahrain in the nine-month period. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) lists Bahrain as a country of human rights concern because of the regime’s approach to freedom of expression and allegations of torture. 

Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, called the issuing of these licenses “extremely concerning”. 

“The UK is providing a minister of state with further repression tools which can either be used for internal repression or to use them in the conflict in Yemen,” AlWadaei said.

Although recognised by the FCDO as among the worst countries for human rights, licenses for the sale of 180 sniper rifles, and components and technology for sniper rifles worth £586,000 were granted to Bangladesh by British authorities. 

The Foreign Office cited 225 extra judicial killings by law enforcement agencies as a reason for Bangladesh’s inclusion on the 30-strong human rights watch list. 

Demonstrating a tension in the UK Government between business interests and human rights abroad, both Bahrain and Bangladesh are recognised by the Department of Trade as ‘key markets’ for potential arms sales. 

An export license of one sniper rifle and components for sniper rifles to Israel, valued at £4,489, was granted during the time period analysed, despite widespread criticism of the Israeli Government’s human rights record. 

A UN commission of inquiry into the 2018 demonstrations in the Gaza Strip found that “more than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers”. UN human rights experts found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers knowingly shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities. 

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have routinely targetted Palestinian children with sniper rifles. In 2019, an 11-year-old and 13-year-old were shot at by an IDF sniper at a refugee camp near Ramallah. The same year, a nine-year-old was left paralysed after he was shot in the head by an IDF sniper in the West Bank. A 14-year-old boy was killed by an Israeli sniper in 2018. 

A recent investigation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that over 200 Palestians were killed and nearly 8,000 were permanently disabled by IDF snipers in a two-year period. 

Roy Ibster, head of the arms unit at Saferworld, an organisation focused on conflict prevention, said: “The UK has a long and apparently ongoing history of selling a lot of sniper rifles to all manner of dubious customers.”

A Lack of Guarantees

The Government’s role in arms exports has also come under scrutiny for not being able to guarantee that snipers exported to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are not passed on to human rights abusers. 

Between 1 July 2020 and 31 March 2021, an export license valued at less than £100,000 for seven sniper rifles, as well as components for sniper rifles, was granted to the UAE. This is in spite of UAE weapons being used in the deadly Yemeni and Libyan conflicts. 

Amnesty International reported that UAE weapons have been supplied to what they have decried as unaccountable Saudi-led coalition-allied militias, some of whom are accused of war crimes in Yemen.

The UAE supplied arms to the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), flouting a UN arms embargo. This month, US Congress passed legislation ordering the head of the LNA, Khalifa Haftar, to be investigated for war crimes.   

A Saferworld spokesperson said: “It’s hard to see how this can be squared with the UK’s laws, which in theory forbid selling arms where there is a clear risk they might be used to commit a serious violation of human rights.”

The UK has a history of exporting snipers to countries with a troubling human rights record.  A Telegraph investigation found that British weapons manufacturer, Accuracy International, had sent sniper rifles to Gadaffi in Libya weeks before the same kind of guns were used to shoot demonstrators in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. 

A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said: “The UK takes its export control responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust and transparent export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine each export licence application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.” 

Additional reporting by Emma Hutchinson, Anna Crossland and Murray Jones