Conscious Criteria: UK Must Halt US Weapon Exports

UK US export
"Police spray mace at protestors to break up a gathering near the Minneapolis Police third precinct" Source: Independent Credit: Reuters

Staff writer Rory Orwell argues for the UK to halt weapon exports to the USA in the wake of state violence against BLM protesters.

The USA, united only in name, is a polarised state. Desperation for the inevitable reform of policing is heightened by repression, necessarily temporary, to peaceful protest. The tipping point was the footage of George Floyd’s murder; shocking, but barely a surprise amidst documented patterns of racist misconduct. 

A disingenuous president adds insult to injury by purporting to support peace whilst presiding over and inciting this internecine civil conflict. To November’s potential Republican voters, the sub-text of Trumpist rhetoric is: these protesters cannot be understood, they are a threat. 

The government should, as Amnesty International has advocated, suspend exports of UK-made police equipment to the US.  If you identify as left-wing, you are probably more likely to be alarmed by this. If recent ‘Early Day Motions’ are anything to go by, that is the case for MPs too.

Only one Conservative backbencher has joined the parliamentarian voices to promote the Black Lives Matter campaign and petition for a review of exports of tear gas, rubber bullets and riot shields. Why such partisanship?

The Strategic Export Controls Annual Report states that “responsible export controls… help
ensure that controlled items are not used for internal repression or to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Unlike the USA and Germany, the UK does not appear to possess the ability to “conduct end-use monitoring of arms exports. The profusion of camera evidence should suffice. When police forces push, beat and shoot, with apparent impunity, do they think it is, to quote the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”?

A spokesperson told the Independent newspaper, that a “risk assessment framework” is in place. The ‘consolidated criteria’ (found here and here) “require us to think hard about the possible impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. These are not decisions we take lightly.” This is based on the 2002 Export Control Act. 

Its second criterion considers, “the recipient country’s attitude towards relevant principles established by international human rights instruments”, and accordingly will “not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression” or verified “serious violations of human rights.”

It concludes, “The Government considers that in some cases, the use of force by a government within its own borders, for example, to preserve law and order against terrorists or other criminals is legitimate and does not constitute internal repression, as long as force is used in accordance with the international human rights standards described above.”

Last June, the High Court suspended lucrative arms export licences to Saudi Arabia (prioritised as a market even after being deemed a country of concern). Bombing Yemen was a clear breach of the third of the aforementioned ‘consolidated criteria’: “The Government will not issue licences for export which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination.”

Does this mean one less military-industrial-diplomatic complex? Well, the government’s appeal against the verdict will be heard in the Supreme Court in November. In any case, Saudi Arabia remains readily supplied by the US

UN experts and rapporteurs roundly condemn US police who attack, not protect. If, as may happen, the situation escalates this year, the government must not dodge the tough truth. As Emily Thornberry wrote to her government counterpart Liz Truss, “our historic alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now.”

To think, while the international authorities imposed an arms embargo in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Trump commended the Chinese government for showing the “power of strength”. And that last year he announced to the National Rifle Association that the US is withdrawing from the UN Arms Trade Treaty, declaring, “We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedoms.”

The government is right to criticise Beijing for threatening the liberties of Hong Kong. This is not to compare the USA with China or Saudi Arabia, but to say that universal humanitarian values must be universal. 

If not, our former foreign secretary will be characterised as a servile poodle fawning towards a dangerous and incorrigible despot — a deluded populist protégé cowering behind the facade of a ‘special relationship’. 

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