AOAV: all our reportsUK arms exports to countries of concern

UK arms export to Bangladesh (2012-2022)

Country overview

Bangladesh is a secular, pluralistic, parliamentary democracy located in southeast Asia, bordering India and Myanmar. The region boasts a president, Mohammad Abdul Hamid, as head of state, and a prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, as head of government. With a population of over 165 million, Bangladesh is among the world’s most densely populated countries. Sunni Muslims constitute 89% of the population, Hindus account for 10%, and a minority of Christians live in the Dhaka, the country’s capital.

Bangladesh acceded to the UN Convention Against Torture over 20 years ago. However, whilst, the state became a signatory of the UN Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, ratification remains outstanding.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Bangladesh did the UK issue between 2012 and 2022?

In total, 266 military good export licences were approved by the UK government to Bangladesh between 2012 and 2022. The number slowly increased over the first couple of years and plateaued between 2016 and 2020 when it started decreasing again. In 2018, exports peaked with 37 licenses approved.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

From 2012 to 2022, the UK approved £336m worth of military export licences to Bangladesh. The graph can be clearly divided into two periods the first one being 2012 to 2016 with a military arms export value of 15.3m, and a second, from 2017 to 2022, equal to £320m in value. This increase is could be attributed to the Holey Artisan Bakery attack on July 1, 2016, after which the Bangladesh government adopted a “Zero Tolerance Policy” to counter extremism.  

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Bangladesh?

The data provided regards single-use, UK – Bangladeshi military export licences. This is opposed to dual export licences, which can be implemented for civil purposes, such as humanitarian aid, or military. The top ten export items requiring single-use licences are listed below. At the top of this list stands components for military support aircraft, and countermeasure systems. During the defined period, the Bangladesh government focused their efforts towards enhancing their military and security capabilities, as terrorist attacks, including attacks on Bangladeshi security forces, increased the demand for better defence; this bid depleted after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Bangladesh between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
Components for military support aircraft34
Military helmets25
Bomb suits17
General naval vessel components16
Military aircraft ground equipment16
Small arms ammunition15
General military aircraft components15
Equipment for the operation of military aircraft in confined areas14
Components for military patrol/assault craft14
Aircraft military communications equipment13
Top three export licenses approved by ratingValue of export licenses in GBP
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£298m
ML5 ‒ Target acquisition, weapon control and countermeasure systems£22m
ML4 ‒ Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures£6.6m
Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

In the last years, Bangladesh has been marked by often-violent political suppression, disappearances perpetrated by government forces, and the use of force to crush dissidents and activists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists were increasingly persecuted for reporting corruption and criticising the government’s policies against the pandemic.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2015 Human Rights Report on the country, “the most significant human rights problems were extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, some restrictions on online speech and the press, early and forced marriage and gender-based violence, and poor working conditions and labour rights.” Bangladeshi police forces have been frequently accused of committing unlawful killings. This further problematised by the fact that UK police trained a paramilitary force to “secretly detain, torture and kill hundreds of people” in the country.  A 2019 Amnesty International report concluded that authorities allegedly “killed 466 people in 2018 under the guise of an anti-drug campaign.” Despite these humanitarian abuse, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), relays that the UK, from 2012-2022, has approved £321m worth of military export licences to Bangladesh. This is more so concerning given that Bangladesh is not actively involved in any major conflict, and instead boasts a significant conventional arms proliferation problem. Thus, the exportation of arms from the UK to Bangladesh is morally reprehensible as it aids and abets a regime routinely accused of human rights abuses, violence and a level of corruption that the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre considers “endemic.”

What has the British government said about these concerns?

The UK government has been critical of the Bangladesh government’s human rights efforts. In 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted that there was “no improvement in the overall human rights situation in Bangladesh in 2015. Tensions between the two main political parties, the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), remain unresolved.”

The influence of the UK on Bangladesh’s civil, judicial, academic, and military institutions continues to be significant, especially in the areas of defence and security cooperation, advisory assistance and military equipment. For instance, the UK offers support to Bangladesh Armed Forces personnel, allowing them to regularly train in the UK every year.

In an official release on 24 June 2017 ,the Government referred to Brexit as a means to cement Britain’s standing in the world and as support to the world’s poorest countries by securing the existing duty-free access to UK markets and providing new opportunities to increase trade links. This means that around 48 countries across the globe, from Bangladesh to Sierra Leone, Haiti and Ethiopia, countires will continue to benefit from duty-free exports into the UK on all goods other than arms and ammunition, known as ‘everything but arms’. Prime Minister Johnson in 2021 described Bangladesh as “one of the fastest growing economies in the world” and added “I look forward to working with Prime Minister Hasina and to seeing her again at COP26 in Glasgow. But for now as we look ahead to the next 50 years of British and Bangladeshi friendship […].” 

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Bangladeshi government have committed since 2012?

There have been various human rights abuses in the recent history of Bangladesh. Some of the most notable incidents and issues include: extrajudicial killings, freedom of speech and press, forced disappearances, violence against women and discrimination against minorities.

In 2012, opposition BNP Leader Ilias Ali was allegedly abducted along with his chauffeur by government security forces. As of October 2018, there was still no information as to his fate. Ali is one of the reportedly over 400 BNP members that the party alleges have been “disappeared” by the government. In the last two weeks of 2013 alone, 19 supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) disappeared.

Simultaneously, the government banned three NGOs from the country in 2013, France’s Doctors without Borders (MSF), Action Against Hunger (ACF) and Britain’s Muslim Aid, alleging that they were providing aid to “illegal” Rohingya refugees coming from Myanmar.

2015 saw mass demonstrations as a reaction to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s boycott of national elections the previous year. The demonstrations were met with excessive use of force by security officials and freedom of expression was seriously suppressed. Human Rights Watch reported that among the police’s misconduct of civil society members were killings, “disappearances,” and arbitrary arrests – again very few of these crimes saw legal consequences for those responsible.

The new Digital Security Act was adopted in October 2018, section 43 allows police in Bangladesh to arrest an individual if they believe that an offence under the law has been or is being committed or there is a possibility of committing crimes or destroying evidence. The law states that a person can get up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading propaganda against Bangladesh’s Liberation War, the national anthem and the national flag using digital devices. Repeated offences carry the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The Act is enacted to ensure National Digital Security and enact laws regarding Digital Crime Identification, Prevention, Suppression, Trial, and other related matters.  A reported 142 people were arrested under said act in 2020, and 13 arrested under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, for their remarks against high officials of the government and their families, and critical views on religion. More so, 19 people were allegedly tortured to death and a total of 31 people disappeared after being picked up by members of law enforcement agencies.

In November 2019, Amnesty International reported 466 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions in 2018, a three-fold increase from the previous year, and the highest number of incidents reported in any single year by local human rights organisations.

In 2021, the British government invited delegations from six nations listed by the Foreign Office as “human rights priority countries” to attend the event at the ExCel conference venue in London’s Docklands in 2021 which were Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Iraq.

Bangladesh failed to submit a requested follow-up report to the Committee against Torture’s review of its practices.

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