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UK government refuses to disclose arms export licenses to Israel, citing future publication and public affairs concerns

The UK Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has refused to disclose information pertaining to arms licenses approved for export to Israel since October 7, 2023, invoking exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This decision comes in the backdrop of heightened scrutiny and public concern over arms exports to Israel amid escalating civilian harm in Gaza.

AOAV sought details on the number and types of arms export licenses granted, categorised by the UK Strategic Export Control Lists. Our inquiry aimed to shed light on the UK’s compliance with international law and its stance on international peace and security, given the contentious nature of arms exports in the context of the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The DBT’s refusal is grounded on three exemptions: section 22 (information intended for future publication), section 36(2)(c) & (4) (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs), and section 44 (prohibitions on disclosure) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The department contends that the requested information, covering licenses granted after June 30, 2023, is earmarked for future release as part of the Export Control Joint Unit’s official statistics in the Annual and Quarterly Reports on Strategic Export Controls. These reports detail export licenses issued, refused, or revoked, offering insights into the type and overall value of military and dual-use goods covered.

The decision to withhold information until its scheduled publication, according to the DBT, is justified by the public interest in ensuring that official statistics are thoroughly vetted for accuracy before release. This process, they argue, is essential for maintaining the integrity and trustworthiness of government-published statistics.

However, this stance raises question over the balance between national security, transparency, and the public’s right to information, especially in the context of a ‘hot conflict’. The refusal to disclose such information in real-time undermines public understanding and accountability, especially given the significant implications of real-time arms exports on international relations and humanitarian law.

The refusal to disclose detailed information on arms licenses to Israel underscores the complex interplay between national security, transparency, and ethical considerations in arms trade policies.

Dr Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV and who submitted the FOI, said: “Transparency in arms export is not just about fulfilling legal obligations; it’s about moral responsibility to ensure that our actions do not contribute to conflicts but pave the way for peace and security. The refusal to disclose details on arms exports to Israel underlines the urgent need for greater accountability and public scrutiny in matters that have profound implications for international peace and human rights.”