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UK arms exports to Turkmenistan (2012-2022)

Country Overview

Turkmenistan is the fourth largest country in Central Asia and has a population of approximately 6 million people. 

The country is a one-party system, with the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan holding a monopoly on power. In 2010, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was re-elected as the president of Turkmenistan, winning 97% of the vote. Berdimuhamedow has been in power since 2006, following the death of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov. During his tenure, Berdimuhamedow has pursued a policy of modernization and development, with a focus on infrastructure projects and economic reform. Yet, the government continues to violate human rights, by tightly controlling the media and restricting freedom of expression assembly and association. The country held presidential elections in 2022, where Gurbaguly resigned and his son Serdar Berdymukhamedov won. However, despite the change in leadership, there has been no improvement in its human rights record according to Human Rights Watch.

Turkmenistan has not signed the ATT. This decision is consistent with its general approach to international treaties as it is known for its cautious approach to international relations and selectiveness in its participation in multilateral agreements.

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

The number of arms export licenses granted to Turkmenistan remained relatively low throughout 2012-2019, with between 0-4 licenses exported per year. Numbers only started to increase from 2020 onwards when numbers increased to up to 11 licenses per year. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

The value of UK arms sales to Turkmenistan was very inconsistent, with 0 value of exports in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. However, in between, and particularly after, numbers spiked, reaching £3.5m, in 2020 and £2.9m. Overall, exports amounted to almost £8m GBP. These numbers are limited to single-use military exports. If we included dual use, numbers total over £41m.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2022

What are the top 10 types of arms exports licenses Britain is selling to Turkmenistan?

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Turkmenistan between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
military aircraft ground equipment12
components for military support aircraft10
components for military training aircraft9
general military aircraft components7
components for military helicopters7
military aircrew safety equipment6
components for military aero-engines6
technology for military helicopters6
military aircrew life support equipment5
military aero-engines4
Top 3 military export items from the UK to Turkmenistan between 2012-2022 by valueValue in GBP
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£4.4m
ML14 ‒ Military training equipment£1.9m
ML11 ‒ Other electronic equipment£493k

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2022

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

1)     According to Human Rights Watch, “Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. The government tightly controls access to the internet in the country, censors the media, and brutally represses all dissents.

2) The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkmenistan third worst for freedom of the press, after North Korea and Eritrea.

3) The regime has monopolized the media. Human Rights Watch has denounced the export of all kinds of technological equipment to the Turkmen government as it strengthens its surveillance capacities frequently used to violate the rights of citizens.

4)  The human rights situation is likely to worsen. The country is facing a worsening food security crisis, which the government is failing to adequately address. 

What has the British government said about these concerns?

In 2015, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) report of countries of concern states “We (the UK government) continue to have significant concerns about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.” It continues by lamenting the “little independent media and limited internet access”, and noting “corruption and lack of transparency are serious and widespread problems.” 

In 2017, the FCO condemned  the human rights situation as “continued allegations of torture and poor prison conditions, and no visible improvement in gender equality, freedom of expression, of religion or belief, of speech and of movement.”

In the latest report, the FCO recognizes that “there were no significant improvements in the human rights situation”.

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

According to findings from a 2012 Amnesty International report, methods of torture employed by security officials included the administration of “electric shocks, asphyxiation, rape, forcibly administering psychotropic drugs, deprivation of food and drink, and exposure to extreme cold.” Through, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow reforms, many have placed hope in the modernization of Turkmenistan and an improvement in its human rights records, however, abuses continue.

In 2016 the constitution was altered, increasing the presidential term from five to seven years and did not reinstate earlier term limits. Thereby, monopolizing the power even more, and the year later Berdimuhamedov was re-elected. Human Rights Watch lamented “the election climate in Turkmenistan denies its citizens the ability to choose their president freely or enjoy freedom of expression or access to information.” 

In its January 2017 report, the UN Committee against Torture noted its concern at “consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions.”The abuse activists and former prisoners experienced included beating kidneys with plastic water bottles to prevent bruises from showing on the body. In addition to a form of torture known as sklonka,  in which prisoners are made to endure hours of exposure to the cold or sun.

Similar to the presidential elections, an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) statement about the March 2018 parliamentary elections, stated that it “lacked important prerequisites of a genuinely democratic election process.”

Amnesty International noted in its assessment of Turkmenistan for 2019 that “Torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be widespread” and Human Rights Watch in its 2019 report stated that these latter “remain integral to Turkmenistan’s prison system.”  

The Turkmen government made the decision to take part in the Kavkaz 2020 multinational military exercise, which took place from September 15 to September 26 in southern Russia’s Astrakhan region. Some of the most oppressive governments in the world are represented in the joint military exercise, including contingents from Russia, China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Also in Human Right’s Watch latest 2023 report, no improvement in Turkmenistan’s human rights record is visible: “The government tolerates no political pluralism, independent media, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities jailed perceived opponents and government critics. The fate and whereabouts of dozens of victims of enforced disappearances remain unknown. The government failed to adequately address a worsening food security crisis. Freedom of movement is subject to substantial restrictions.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Turkmenistan. 

For more from this investigation please go here.