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BAE Systems: arming UK’s human rights priority countries?

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.

In July 2023, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom released their annual Human Rights & Democracy report. This report, a cornerstone of the FCDO’s efforts in human rights advocacy since 1997, spotlights 32 countries with alarming human rights records, emphasising that those responsible for violations must be held accountable.

How important is this list? To what degree does such a report govern and guide the UK’s trade and diplomacy? In particular, does the UK government sanction arms sales to countries on its own list of concern?

AOAV’s research has uncovered that BAE Systems, Britain’s leading arms manufacturer, is engaged in weapons trade with a significant number of the nations on the FCDO’s list of concern. 

Of the 32 human rights priority countries listed by the FCDO, AOAV found that BAE Systems has established definite relationships with ten and reported relationships with three in the last decade. This climbs to 16 when including nations that were omitted from the UK government’s latest report.[2]

The definite BAE Systems trading relationships of concern are with Afghanistan, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.

The reported relationships are with Bangladesh, Libya, and Zimbabwe.

Among these relationships, a significant portion are located in the politically sensitive Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, raising critical concerns about the impact of these arms deals on regional stability and human rights.

Countries of concern

As noted elsewhere in this report, Saudi Arabia stands as a notable example. Despite the kingdom’s extensive catalogue of domestic and international human rights abuses, it remains a key client for BAE Systems, and the UK government continues to sign off on major arms exports. Since the onset of the Saudi-led war in Yemen in 2015, BAE Systems has sold over £22.4bn worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia with the backing of the UK’s Conservative government. These include combat vehicles, aircraft and thousands of missiles supplied either directly by BAE Systems, or via joint arms venture MBDA, of which BAE Systems owns a 37.5% share.

BAE Systems also employs a substantial in-country workforce providing maintenance, training and technical support to the Saudi Air Force; a crew deemed vital for Saudi Arabia’s capacity to wage war in Yemen. Evidence strongly suggests that BAE-supplied weaponry has been used indiscriminately in air operations resulting in civilian casualties, potentially in violation of International Humanitarian Law. 

Egypt’s case is similarly concerning. Since a partial EU arms embargo was imposed following the 2013 political upheavals, the UK has issued £352mn worth of military licences to the country. During this time, BAE Systems has profited from the sales of at least 390 anti-air, anti-ship and cruise missiles through arms consortium MBDA. This trade occurs amidst Egypt’s internal conflicts and human rights challenges, as acknowledged by the UK government in its human rights report. 

The involvement of BAE Systems in Iraq, a nation embroiled in internal conflict, is of further concern. Over the last decade, BAE Systems and its subsidiaries have supplied precision weapons to Iraq, raising questions about the role of these arms in the nation’s internal security situation and related human rights offences.

BAE Systems also actively trades with human rights-abusing countries outside of the MENA region. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, rated by Freedom House as two of the world’s least free countries, have received missiles and armoured vehicles from BAE Systems within the last decade. The FCDO, meanwhile, condemns their repressive authoritarian regimes for reports of forced disappearances, forced and child labour, gender-based discrimination and violence, and severely restricted freedom of expression. 

In Colombia too, where the government and its security forces are accused of unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention and serious corruption, BAE Systems has a clear record of arms trading. Alongside the provision of artillery, in 2015 BAE Systems reportedly tasked a Conservative MP to facilitate the sale of ocean patrol vessels to the Colombian Navy. 

This is not the first time that government ministers have been implicated in international arms deals involving BAE Systems, revealing a potential conflict of interests that casts doubt over the UK government’s commitment to holding those responsible for human rights violations to account.

Controversial FCDO list omissions

Beyond the countries named, BAE Systems’ dealings include controversial report omissions – Bahrain and Israel. Both countries, absent from this year’s list following the announcement of substantial trade deals with the UK government, have documented human rights issues and continue to receive arms from BAE Systems. 

Since 2013, the UK has granted military export licences to the tune of £181 million to Bahrain. BAE Systems has sold aircraft, precision weapons and even a second-hand ocean patrol vessel to the nation. HMS Clyde, bought by Bahrain in 2020, was reportedly used during a naval blockade of Yemen, preventing humanitarian supplies from reaching Yemeni citizens.

The Israeli government, which has been entangled in a protracted conflict with Hamas in Palestine, has also received BAE Systems aircraft. In 2021, evidence emerged that BAE Systems’ joint venture produced F-35 fighter jets were used in airstrikes that killed 232 civilians. These jets form a significant portion of the Israeli government’s air power and have likely been mobilised during the most recent, devastating spate of conflict.

Conclusions

AOAV’s research reveals a challenging contradiction in the UK’s foreign policy and human rights stance. While the government positions itself as a defender of human rights and democracy on the world stage, it authorises the sale of highly destructive weapons to the same countries it condemns. Combined with recent revelations that a number of Conservative peers have significant financial investments in BAE Systems, this juxtaposition highlights worrying inconsistencies in the UK government’s position on human rights and the national arms trade. 

It is clear that the balancing act between economic interests and human rights advocacy must remain a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. The complexity of this situation underscores the need for a more harmonised approach to arms trade and human rights policy, ensuring that economic interests do not undermine the UK’s commitment to global human rights standards.

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