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Case studies: the United Kingdom, from key ATT architect to key violator? – Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty, Part 12

The UK played a key role in the creation and adoption of the ATT. From the beginning they played a key part in negotiations and galvanising support.[i] As the sixth largest exporter of arms in the last decade and the UK’s key role in the ATT’s conception, the UK had the opportunity to act as a model arms exporter.

Nevertheless, as this report has already indicated in the section on arms to Saudi Arabia, the UK has been inconsistent in their adherence to their commitments under the ATT.

This section will focus on the UK’s arms transfers more broadly to understand if such ATT violations are found elsewhere, as well as examine the impact of the ATT on the UK more generally, such as on export controls and transparency.

Read the full report here

Arms transfers since 2014

Exports to Saudi-led coalition members

The UK’s arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are not the only arms transfers which give rise to concern. Other members of the Saudi-led coalition have been supplied arms from the UK, including Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE. All UK arms transfers in the last decade (2012-2021), according to SIPRI data, are detailed in Appendix 14.[ii]

In total, between 2015 and 2021, the UK approved licences for military goods worth £9.5 billion to countries who have been part of the Saudi-led coalition in this period,[iii] from 2,780 limited-value licences – there are an additional 632 unlimited value licences. Those to Saudi Arabia account for the vast majority of this, but when Saudi Arabia is not included, the value of approved licences to Coalition members amounts to £2.4 billion for 2,245 limited value licences, and 502 unlimited licences. Of these licences, 184 were for components for combat aircraft, 77 for combat helicopters, 27 for components for aircraft cannons, 23 for projectile launchers, and 17 for aircraft cannons.[iv]

Among the types of export licences, the licences under the group ‘ML4 – grenade bombs, missiles, countermeasures’ are valued at £681m and a further £553m under ‘ML10 – Aircraft, helicopters, drones’.

Given the harm occurring in Yemen and the violations of international law identified, it is likely that many arms transferred using these licences, particularly those for explosive weapons, systems that launch explosive weapons, and component parts, could have violated the UK’s ATT commitments. While it remains evident that the UK’s arms to Saudi Arabia appear in clear violation of their ATT commitments, the transfers to the other Coalition members could indicate a pattern of violations.

Exports to Israel

Gaza was identified earlier in this report as one of the countries worst impacted by manufactured explosive weapons. 99% of all civilian casualties from this weapon type were reported to have been caused by Israel.

The worst periods of violence in the last decade occurred in 2014 and 2021. In 2014, AOAV recorded 3,746 civilian deaths and injuries from Israel’s use of manufactured explosive weapons on Gaza, in 2021 1,477 were recorded.

Populated areas are frequently targeted and civilians account for the majority of casualties.

Many have called for arms embargoes on Israel, given the above and other human rights abuses. Despite assurances that UK arms transfers to Israel would be reviewed following Israel’s military action on Gaza in 2014, CAAT notes that between 2016 and 2020, the value of the UK’s arms exports licences increased by more than 400% – from £67 million in 2011 to 2015, to £387 million in 2016 to 2020.[v]

Since 2014, the UK has approved 962 limited-value licences for military goods to Israel – the value of these licences amounts to £444m. There have been a further 50 unlimited value licences approved.[vi] These include licences for targeting equipment, missiles, combat aircraft components and components among many others of concern.

Under the code ‘ML10 – aircraft, helicopters, drones’ there have been 237 limited value licences approved since 2014, valued at £108m, and 31 unlimited licences. Under the code ‘ML4 – grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures’ the UK has approved 84 licences of these military goods for Israel, valued at £22m, and 6 unlimited licences.

In 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, which saw explosive weapon use by Israel cause more than 3,700 civilian casualties over the course of the operation.

In 2014, the year the UK ratified the ATT, the UK approved 109 limited-value licences to Israel, valued at £12m, as well as 3 unlimited value licences. £3.5m of this was for licences covered by code ‘ML5 – Target acquisition, weapon control and countermeasure systems’ (39 limited licences), £1.2m from licences covered by code ‘ML10 – Aircraft, helicopters, drones’ (25 limited licences and 1 unlimited licence), and £591k from licences under code ‘ML4 – Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures’ (7 limited licences).

The above graph uses data compiled from CAAT on licences approved by the UK on military goods to Israel in 2014,[vii] alongside AOAV data from the Explosive Violence Monitor. From this it can be seen, for example, that when the UK approved a licence for components for combat helicopters on July 2nd 2014, there had already been 55 civilian casualties from Israeli explosive violence in 2014. The day before this approval 4 civilians were injured in airstrikes across Gaza.

Several dozen activists protested in central London on Saturday 24 February 2022 against Britain’s arms exports and logistical support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing air campaign against Yemen, February 2022. Alisdare Hickson.

When the UK approved the licence for targeting equipment to Israel on July 22nd 2014, 1,366 civilian casualties had been recorded in 2014 up until that date by Israeli explosive violence in Gaza, 157 occurred just the day before. On the same day the licence was approved, 60 civilian casualties were caused by Israeli airstrikes and shelling on populated areas, including residential areas, villages and encampments.

Similarly, in 2021, the UK continued to approve licences for military goods as violence escalated yet again between Israel and Gaza. AOAV recorded 1,477 civilian casualties from Israel’s explosive violence in 2021, with the vast majority from attacks in May; most casualties occurred in attacks targeting residential and other urban areas. On May 12th 2021, the UK approved the licence for military aero-engines ‘for testing and evaluation by the potential end user’, valued at £149,016.[viii] On the same day, AOAV recorded 233 civilian casualties from Israeli airstrikes; 86 civilian casualties were caused the previous day.

The month following this escalation more licences were approved for components for combat aircrafts, technology for unmanned air vehicles, components for military aero-engines, and components for electronic warfare equipment.[ix] Across 2021 the UK approved 85 limited-value licences for military goods to Israel, valued at £24m, as well as 3 unlimited-value licences.[x]

Much of the UK’s arms exports to Israel have been components, equipment and technology used for combat aircrafts and related equipment. The UK is involved in the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, supplying many key components of the F-35 combat aircrafts.[xi] The US had transferred 27 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to Israel by 2021 and Israel confirmed these were used in their offensive on Gaza in May 2021.[xii]

It is possible that many of the UK’s, and other ATT state parties, military transfers to Israel could have violated their ATT commitments, given the continued targeting of populated areas, civilian casualties, as well as continuing human rights abuses.[xiii]

Further arms transfers of concern

It is not within the scope of this report to be able to interrogate all arms transfers of any one state. Nevertheless, the above should not be considered anomalies among the UK’s arms transfers.

Research carried out by AOAV last year, found that the UK had approved exports of military goods to 80% of the countries on its own embargoed, sanctioned or trade restricted list in just over five years.[xiv] Both CAAT and AOAV have also acknowledged the UK’s habit of providing arms to states experiencing conflict,[xv] even approving arms transfers to both parties, such as India and Pakistan, or Azerbaijan and Armenia.[xvi]

For instance, since the UK’s ratification of the ATT, both Pakistan and India, who frequently trade mortar fire and shelling across the Kashmir border, have seen licences approved for the supply of items such as components for mortar bombs, artillery ammunition, or missiles and components for equipment to launch these explosive weapons.[xvii]

Internal laws, procedures and transparency

Transparency

The UK has always submitted public reports to the ATT detailing its arms exports. These include details of exports and comments. However, of States Parties’ reports, the UK is considered to have not submitted meaningfully transparent reports;[xviii] failing to provide data on UK imports.

Destruction in Gaza, 27 July. During a brief 12 hour cessation of hostilities, families returned to Shujaiya in eastern Gaza, scene of some of the heaviest Israeli bombing. (Iyad al Baba/Oxfam)

When it comes to transparency there are further concerns. The values referred to in this document can only account for arms transferred through limited/single licences. These licences cover the transfer of specific equipment and a fixed amount. However, since 2015, when the ATT was in force, the UK has approved more than 9,000 unlimited/open export licences for military goods. These cover 230 destinations, including many countries of concern.[xix] These licences do not detail the amount or value of the equipment and allow an unlimited amount of equipment to be exported from the categories indicated.

CAAT has estimated that the majority of the UK’s arms exports are likely to be approved through these ‘secret licences’.[xx] Even when the UK pauses new licences for arms sales to a particular country, perhaps due to pressure because of human rights abuses or conflict, for example, arms transfers may continue under these open licences.

It was even reported in 2015 that the UK Government had been encouraging exporting companies to request these licences in an effort to mask the scale of the UK’s arms trade.[xxi] Though the number of these licences approved each year has not increased significantly.[xxii]

The lack of transparency has also extended to breaches of licences and export controls, with at least 18 settlements reported between January 2022 and April 2022, for unlicensed exports of dual-use goods, military goods and related activity controlled by The Export Control Order 2008.[xxiii] The penalties issued by the UK’s HMRC for these offences or breaches ranged between £1,000 and £2.7 million. However, no details were issued on the types of goods and to which countries they were exported. The penalties are part of settlements which allow the companies in breach to remain anonymous.[xxiv] This is particularly concerning for those receiving the highest penalties, indicating a serious breach.

Internal law

In 2014, the UK Government updated their export licensing criteria as part of its ATT ratification, though much of this was already reflected in previous criteria and agreements. This criteria has governed much of the UK’s arms transfers since their ATT ratification. However, in 2021, the UK introduced new export controls as part of changes since leaving the EU.[xxv] The new Strategic Export Licensing Criteria, is believed to reduce transparency and accountability, while also allowing for more discretion in approving arms transfers, even where there are concerns covered by the ATT.

One key example of this in the new criteria for granting licences is where the language has been changed around considering whether there is a risk the arms will be used, for example, for war crimes or human rights violations. Now, instead of asking if there is a clear risk of such harm, the test requires the government to determine that there is a clear risk, and even if this risk is found, the new criteria still allow approval of a licence if it is also determined that the transfer would be balanced by a positive influence on peace and security.[xxvi] In the previous criteria, there were specific instances acknowledged where a licence would not be granted – now such instances can be ‘balanced’ alongside other interests. This was one among many concerns Control Arms UK identified among the new criteria.[xxvii]

There is the suggestion that these changes may be in response to legal challenges to licences issued for arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Impact of the ATT

The UK has a vital position as a top arms exporter and a key supporter of the ATT. It would be hoped that these would see the UK leading the way in demonstrating responsible arms transfers. Instead, what we have seen is the UK violate ATT commitments, which they helped refine, with bold regularity.

The ATT, in general, seems to have made little difference in terms of both the number of licences approved by the UK and the destination for the goods covered in the licence. Transparency, in particular, is a key concern arising when examining the UK’s arms controls. One of the key aims of the ATT is to better improve transparency within the global arms trade. Given the new criteria announced last year, it may also be that the situation for arms transfers in the UK could worsen, though at this point it is difficult to yet understand the full impact of this updated criteria.


Navigate the report:

Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty – Executive Summary

Part 1: Nation-by-nation review analysis

Part 2: Who is causing the most harm?

Part 3: Who is providing arms?

Part 4: Thematic examination

Part 5: Conclusion

Part 6: Recommendations 

Part 7: Case studies – Myanmar’s military

Part 8: Case studies – Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Part 9: Case studies – Non-state armed groups in the Philippines

Part 10: Case studies – the Taliban

Part 11: Case studies – China before and after ATT accession

Part 12: Case studies – the United Kingdom, from key ATT architect to key violator?


[i] Duncan, J. ‘The UK’s role in the UN Arms Trade Treaty’, Civil Service Quarterly, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2013/07/12/the-uks-role-in-the-un-arms-trade-treaty-2/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[ii] Though SIPRI data has been one of the main sources of data throughout this report, when it comes to data on arms transfers from the UK, CAAT can provide a more detailed overview. While SIPRI’s data covers international “major conventional weapons” transfers, CAAT’s data covers all licences granted by the UK government to export arms.

[iii] Not all states included were part of the coalition for the whole duration of this period.

[iv] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/item?region=United+Arab+Emirates,Sudan,Bahrain,Qatar,Kuwait,Egypt,Jordan,Morocco&date_from=2015&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[v] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/countries/israel/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[vi] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/overview?region=Israel&date_from=2014&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[vii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/licence-list?region=Israel&date_from=2014&date_to=2014 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[viii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/licence-list?region=Israel&date_from=2021&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[ix] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/licence-list?region=Israel&date_from=2021&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[x] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/overview?region=Israel&date_from=2021&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[xi] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/countries/israel/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[xii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/countries/israel/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[xiii] Amnesty International, ‘ISRAEL AND OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES’, https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/middle-east-and-north-africa/israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[xiv] Jones, M., ‘UK approves military exports to 80% of countries on own restricted list’, 26 January 2021, https://aoav.org.uk/2021/uk-approves-military-exports-to-80-of-countries-on-restricted-list/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[xv] CAAT, ‘New report shows UK arms both sides in world’s most serious conflict zones’, 20 July 2005, https://caat.org.uk/news/2005-07-20-2/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[xvi] Jones, M. ‘UK approved arms exports to Armenia and Azerbaijan’, 14 October 2020, AOAV, https://aoav.org.uk/2020/uk-arms-in-armenia-and-azerbaijan/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)  

[xvii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/item?region=Pakistan&date_from=2014&date_to=2021 and https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/item?region=India&date_from=2014&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023) 

[xviii] https://attmonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/EN-ATT_5-Year-Review_2021_v5.pdf