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UK arms export to Colombia (2012-2022)

Country overview

Colombia has a total population of around 50 million, with Bogota as its capital. Colombia is a presidential democratic republic, meaning the president is the head of state and head of government.

In August 2018, Ivan Duque Marquez became president after a second round of elections that were considered free and fair and by far the most peaceful in decades. The country has a long history of internal conflict between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and although a historic peace agreement was reached in 2016, in-fighting continues to persist at the expense of civilians.

In 2019, large-scale protests erupted across Colombia over government policies and economic inequalities, to which the police frequently responded in arbitrary detentions and used excessive force. The Covid-19 pandemic severely affected Colombia, leading to lockdowns and economic g of a man in disruption. The same year, protests re-erupted against social inequality and police brutality after the killing of a man in police custody. The protests continue, leading to widespread violence and multiple massacres and attacks on social leaders.

Colombia signed the Arms Trade Treaty in September 2013 but is still yet to ratify. However, the country has acceded to a range of international treaties, such as the UN Convention Against Torture.

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

As demonstrated above, the number of weapons export licences granted by the UK government to the Colombian government from 2012 to 2022 is relatively stable beside it’s peak in 2013 with 33 export licenses. In total, from 2012 to 2022, 242 export licences were approved by the UK government for military goods to Colombia.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

The sale of UK military arms to Colombia appeared stable between 2012 and 2021, except for a drastic rise occurring in 2013 when the value reached £14m. In total, between 2012 and 2021, there were £27m worth of approved military arms exports from the UK to Colombia, of which, 54% were approved in the year 2013 alone. In 2020 numbers increased again to amount to £2.2m, but overall remained relatively stable.

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

The data analysed thus far has referred solely to military exports (single use) licenses. The table considers both military and dual-use exports, the latter referring to permits to control all material, software, and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, as well as military goals.

As outlined in the table, during the past decade, information security equipment was by the far the most frequent licence granted. The remaining most frequent licences listed are typical of a government fighting a civil war, as components for military support and combat aircraft, body armour, military helmets are included.

The top 10 military weapons, in accordance with such parameters, are listed below.

The top 10 export licenses sold by the UK to Colombia from 2012 to 2021Total number of licenses
Components for military support aircraft28
Body armour24
Military helmets18
Components for combat aircraft17
General military aircraft components16
Components for military training aircraft15
Weapon night sights15
Components for military aero-engines12
Weapon sights11
Equipment for the operation of military aircraft in confined areas10
Top three licenses exported to China from the UK between 2012-2022 by ratingValue of limited licensesNumber of limited licensesNumber of unlimited licenses
ML9 – Warships£11m510
ML10 – Aircraft, helicopters, drones£4.3m5727
ML15 ‒ Imaging equipment£3.1m134

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

The arms sale to Colombia is a matter of concern since abuses involving the Colombian military, police, and intelligence agencies appeared widespread in the country during the last decade. The legal and judicial systems which are in place today face many difficulties holding those responsible to account; a factor that contributes to the lawlessness felt in Colombia.

Illegal armed groups, including dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and drug-trafficking gangs, continued to operate and commit violent crimes during the defined period. Such groups were significant perpetrators of human rights abuse, acts of extrajudicial and unlawful killings, extortion, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, and bombings.

More than five decades of conflict have led to the militarization of large proportions of Colombian society with widespread access to weapons in the country enabling gross abuse to take place.

Furthermore, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for activists, according to observer groups such as Global Witness, which has identified the country as the deadliest for environmentalists, with 65 people killed in 2020. Amnesty International has called for a complete cut-off of military aid to Colombia due to the ‘dire human rights situation’.

By the UK government permitting the equipping of the Colombian government with cryptography systems, by far one of the most frequent licences granted, concerns are raised about the state spying on both its citizens and government officials, as suggested by a national news magazine in 2014.

What has the British government said about these concerns?

In a parliamentary debate on Monday 12 July 2021, The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office said, “The UK remains concerned about reports of human rights violations in Colombia and we have raised our concerns with the relevant state actors since the protests began. We welcome the Colombian Government’s commitment to transparent investigations into allegations of excessive force and to take appropriate action against those responsible. The British Government believes in real importance to the principles underpinning the UK-Andean Countries Trade Agreement and expects our partners to do the same.” Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon then added, “We continue to ensure that our training of overseas law enforcement officers is fully supported by reviewing all training initiatives and ensuring that human rights are at the forefront of direct engagement.”

In 2017, the British government openly addressed the human rights issues in Colombia, pointing a finger of responsibility at both government security forces and paramilitary groups. Colombia is a so-called “human rights priority country” to the UK, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said that its “overarching human rights objectives are to reduce impunity for human rights violations and abuses.”

 The FCO reports in 2017 outlined some key human rights concerns in Colombia such as gender-based violence, the human rights consequences of illegal economies including drugs, illegal mining, modern slavery and highlighted the increased threat faced by human rights defenders, noting the impunity rate for such crimes stands at 87%.

Despite such concerns, British soldiers have trained Colombian armed forces, according to the Ministry of Defence. Moreover, in June 2014, Hugo Swire MP, a foreign office minister, reportedly had a week-long trip to Latin America, which included a stop in Colombia to act as an official weapons salesman for arms firm BAE Systems.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Colombian government has committed since 2012? 

Columbia has had a history of human rights abuses for several decades, which have frequently been linked to the country’s internal conflict which has been ongoing since the 1960s.

Some of the human rights abuses include extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, torture and forced displacement. Armed groups, including government forces, paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups have been reported to be responsible for these abuses.

Further, there have been several reports documenting attacks on human rights activists, journalists, member of indigenous and afro-Colombian communities and environmentalists, aimed to silence these voices who speak out against different kinds of injustices and human rights abuses. The administration reportedly made several efforts to undermine accountability for these violations. Moreover, despite being convicted in national courts, the regime refused to admit the military’s participation in atrocities. Only in September 2020, the Attorney General’s Office opened over 2,000 investigations into alleged unlawful killings by army personnel committed from 2002-2008. Such enquiries achieved over 900 convictions in cases against more than 1,600 mid-and low-level soldiers. Nonetheless, authorities largely failed to prosecute senior army officers involved in the killings, who instead, received were subject to promotion through the military ranks.

A report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that in the killings of 145 community leaders and rights activists in 2021 in Colombia, the government had used “unnecessary or disproportionate force”.

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