UK arms exports doubled in 2022 as Britain continues to fuel global conflict and misery

5 October 2023 /

A new report by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has revealed that UK arms exports nearly doubled in 2022 to £8.5bn. This is the highest level of Single Issue Export Licences (SIELs) since records began. CAAT said its report should be a moment for political parties to reflect on Britain’s role in fuelling global conflict – however, the Labour Party is unlikely to heed CAAT’s concerns.

UK arms exports: dealing in repression and violence

In 2022, the number of people killed globally in war or conflict reached a 28-year high, at 237,000 people. The UK government plays a role in this, as Britain supplies weapons to some of these conflicts. For example, as the Guardian reported:

At least 87 civilians were killed by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen using weapons supplied by the UK and US between January 2021 and February 2022

Now, CAAT has released its latest report into UK arms exports – and it makes for grim reading. You can read the full report by downloading it here. The group said in a press release that, while much of the information it based the report on is publicly available, the UK government still needs to enforce:

a greater level of transparency… to ensure companies are compelled to provide accurate data on the financial values and quantities of actual transfers.

The report shows that the highest levels of arms exports were to countries with repressive regimes and poor human rights records. It states that:

  • The largest recipient of SIELs by value was Qatar, at £2.7 billion, mostly from the licence for the delivery of 24 Typhoon combat aircraft issued in May. Eight aircraft were delivered in 2022.
  • The second largest recipient was Saudi Arabia at £1.1billion, mostly missiles and components for bombs.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, the report further detailed that:

The UK supplied £1.1b worth of air-air missiles, air-surface missiles, and components for bombs to Saudi Arabia in 2022, thus replenishing its arsenal following the heavy use of such weapons in the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Then, CAAT found that, of the larger volumes of licences:

The next three were the USA (£860m, including large amounts of small arms), Türkiye (£424m, mostly a £250m licence for technology for tanks and armoured vehicles), and Ukraine (£401m).

The report noted that the £401m worth of SIELs to Ukraine did not include equipment the UK government gifted to the country.

Overall, CAAT’s report made clear where most of the UK’s SIELs allowed military equipment to be sent to: the Middle East:

CAAT: various concerns

CAAT said in a press release that:

Ukraine is also cited as a country of concern in the report due to the UK government not putting any measures in place to safeguard weapons when the conflict ends. This is in contrast to the EU and the US, both of which have additional regulatory mechanisms in place to address end user concerns in Ukraine.

Small arms sales to the US are also highlighted as problematic due to a licence issued for 28,500 sniper rifles for a commercial end user. This raises concerns that weapons exported by the UK could contribute to gun violence, or be smuggled to Mexico and Central America where a large proportion of the guns used by criminal gangs originate from the US.

Then, the report also looked at the UK’s major conventional weapons (MCW) dealings. These are things like aircraft, missiles, and ships – but not small arms and light weapons like guns or bullets. CAAT found that:

  • The largest recipients of UK exports of MCW over 2018-22 were the USA (20.4%), Qatar (16%), Saudi Arabia (7.6%), India (6.9%), and Ukraine (6.3%).
  • Of the rest, 14.9% were to other Asia Pacific countries, 10.6% to other countries in Europe, 10.2% to South America, 7.0% to others in the Middle East, and 0.2% to Africa.

Britain: complicit in ‘appalling human rights violations’

CAAT’s media coordinator and former Canary editor Emily Apple stated:

The Annual Report gives a clear picture of how the UK is complicit in fuelling conflict around the world. Billions of pounds of arms are exported to dictatorial, or near-dictatorial regimes that commit appalling human rights violations with a disturbing lack of transparency.

As we move closer towards a general election, it is vital that all political parties take CAAT’s recommendations seriously and commit to taking urgent action over these deadly sales.

Of course, the general election will make little difference to the UK’s fuelling of conflict around the world. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer is now as militaristic as the Tories are. So, while CAAT’s report is crucial, whether or not it will make a difference to UK policy remains to be seen.

Featured image via Flickr/Alisdare Hickson, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY 2.0