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BAE Systems and human rights – a troubling relationship examined

What is this report? BAE Systems, benefiting from global conflicts and threats of war, has seen recent unprecedented profit growth, highlighting the lucrative nature of the arms trade amidst global instability. This 2024 report – “How BAE Systems helped arm half the world” – from Action on Armed Violence investigates BAE Systems’ secretive client list spanning the previous decade, and scrutinises the ethical implications of arming countries with dubious human rights records and unstable political regimes.

“We’re committed to conducting business responsibly and to maintaining and improving systems and processes to reduce the risk of slavery and human trafficking in our business and our supply chain. Our Code of Conduct, together with other global policies and processes, supports our commitment to human rights and is regularly reviewed. This results in, for example, due diligence being carried out during the supplier evaluation stage against non-financial risks” – BAE Systems

On power, one thing stands always true: that the ownership of arms confers power via its potential to apply lethal force. The arms industry is, therefore, integral to the nation state’s preservation and projection of power.  It may also bestow power through surveillance technology that allows citizen information to be collected. 

For BAE Systems those who hold the purse-strings to power are not only their natural clients, but they are also clients beholden to the industry to keep supplying them with weapons to assert their dominance. With 2022 being BAE Systems’ best-year-yet for new orders, it is clear that the so-called military industrial complex has never been healthier. 

War, in short, begets profits. In the three weeks after 7th October 2023 – when Hamas launched its atrocities against Israel – Britain’s biggest defence contractor’s share price reportedly rose 12% to boost its total value to some £33 billion. 

But what price is such power when balanced against that power’s potential use in human right suppression? 

In this section we examine both confirmed and reported sales by BAE Systems to states across the world that are known to have repeatedly committed human rights violations, as evidenced in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023, a report based on extensive investigative work conducted by Human Rights Watch staff through 2022. At no point do we claim that such BAE sales were directly implicated in human rights violations, but we present the human rights abuses of those nations BAE appears to have sold to, in order to highlight wider concerns of power and profit in the world of the armaments.

Algeria, Egypt and Morocco

BAE Systems appears to have sold a sophisticated cyber-surveillance system called Evident – capable of decryption and interception of internet traffic – to the Algerian government in 2017. In 2022, Algerian authorities reportedly orchestrated their suppression of dissent via reductions on the freedoms of assembly, expression and movement of their citizens. At the time, around 250 individuals were being held in prison for participation in activism, expression or peaceful protest. The human rights violations of the Algerian government have been previously thoroughly documented

54 export licences have been reportedly approved for the sale of military goods by BAE Systems to Egypt between 2008 and 2021. September 2022 marked one year since the Egyptian government launched its National Human Rights Strategy to enhance respect for, and protection of, human rights. But the government has done little to repeal any of the numerous laws that are used to curtail basic freedoms. Thousands remain unjustly detained for peaceful activism, whilst National Security agents and Interior Ministry police continue to detain opponents in unofficial detention places in which the individuals are subjected to forced confessions and torture. 

In 2017, it was revealed BAE Systems had apprently sold mass surveillance technology to the government of Morocco. In 2022, Moroccan authorities continued to detain and subject bloggers, dissidents, human rights defenders and journalists to unfair trials. Draconian laws have also been used by prosecutors to punish peaceful advocacy for self-determination in Western Sahara. 

Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia

HMS Clyde – a Royal Navy patrol vessel made by BAE Systems – was returned to BAE Systems and then sold second-hand to the Royal Bahrain Navy Force in 2020. It was renamed RBNS Al-Zubara. In November 2022, Bahrain held parliamentary elections with a ban on opposition candidates. Independent media has also been banned in Bahrain since 2017, whilst 26 Bahrainis remain on death row. Prominent opposition figures and human rights defenders – as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Abdel-Jalil al-Singace – reportedly remain held in prison without adequate medical care.

BAE Systems was awarded a $2.7 billion contract from the US Department of Defense in 2019 to procure Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System precision guidance units for rockets The contract included selling to the Iraqi government. In 2020, BAE Systems was further awarded a $35 million contract to provide MK 90 propellant grains – used in Hydra rocket systems – to Iraq. The human rights abuses by that country’s armed forces are well documented. In Iraq, a protest in October 2019 saw thousands of protestors demand essential improvements to everyday life. The demonstration was quickly shut down, with state security forces and armed groups affiliated with the state directly shooting protesters. At least 487 were killed during the uprising. Barely any of the legal complaints filed in response have progressed towards achieving justice. 

Between 2008 and 2015, 13 export licences were approved for BAE Systems to provide Kuwait with aircraft, technology, training equipment and software. The country’s political system continues to be in turmoil. Authorities restrict freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Kuwaiti authorities also heavily discriminate against the Bidun, a community of stateless people, by severely suppressing their efforts to realise their rights.

Finally, BAE Systems sold £15 billion worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia’s military – between 2015 and 2019 – during Yemen’s civil war. BAE Systems also sold mass surveillance technology to the government of Saudi Arabia in 2017. Saudi Arabia remains troubled by human rights violations with far-reaching repressive acts and effects felt by many under the helm of Mohammed bin Salman. Authorities have conducted arrests of human rights activists, peaceful dissidents and public intellectuals. 

China and Indonesia

BAE Systems opened an office in Shanghai, China in 2013; this followed the opening of an office in Beijing in 2011. In 2022, Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term as China’s leader, with millions of Chinese citizens suffering grave human rights violations under his rule. 2022 also saw international attention to human rights violations by the Chinese government grow. 

BAE Systems sold its Bofors 57 Mk3 naval gun system to the Indonesian Navy for its KCR-60 fast-attack vessel programme in 2019. In Indonesia, the government has frequently violated basic civil and political rights, and disadvantaged groups – based on ethnic, gender, religious and social grounds – bore the brunt of these violations in 2022. The Indonesian military and police have abused rights across the country with impunity, particularly in the Papua and West Papua provinces where foreign rights monitors and international media are excluded. 

Brazil, Chile and Colombia 

BAE Systems sold three Ocean Patrol Vessels and associated crew training to the Brazilian Navy in a contract worth £133 million in 2012. BAE Systems also delivered the Brazilian Army with modernised M109 howitzers in 2019. In October 2022, Lula da Silva won the Brazilian presidential election – at a crucial time for the country’s democracy – to succeed Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s tenure, however, was marked by a series of governmental actions that led to serious human rights violations.

In 2017, the Chilean Navy received an air defence weapon system, the Sea Ceptor, developed by MBDA – a company partially owned (37.5%) by BAE Systems. December 2021 marked Gabriel Boric’s win in Chile’s presidential election. Issues regarding police brutality and freedom of assembly have persisted, however, including excessive use of force against protestors and ill-treatment of detainees by the police. Chile’s laws, in fact, grant the national police – the Carabineros – broad powers of detention. 

BAE Systems sold Silver Fox unmanned aerial vehicles – which can conduct autonomous surveillance imaging – to Colombian military services in 2013. Colombia has come under scrutiny for its abuses by state armed groups, alongside limited access to justice. Human rights defenders and journalists face pervasive death threats and violence too. Additionally, Colombian police forces have committed serious human rights violations in response to largely peaceful protests across Colombia since 2019. 

Section conclusion

Whilst it is not within the scope of this report to state that this weapon system was used in this specific human rights abuse, it is clear BAE Systems has had few qualms selling its products in the last decade to the authorities of states that have perpetrated well-documented human rights violations. 

Such an indiscriminate approach to business activities – related to human rights – is certainly in line with its Chairman’s claim that the “moral dimension” should not “supersede all other arguments.” So, when BAE Systems sold Ocean Patrol Vessels to the Brazilian Navy it reportedly claimed the transaction as one that may provide protection and security for Brazil’s natural resources.  

To what degree arming a state with weapons and, in so doing, emboldening that state’s grip on power – irregardless of whether such power has been implicated in human rights abuses – does not seem to be BAE Systems’ driving concern.

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