UK government faces questions over arms exports to North Africa

The British government has approved licenses worth at least £800m for the sale of military equipment and dual-use goods to countries across North Africa, , drawing criticism from rights groups and select committees.

In the past five years the British government has approved 1,258 licenses for the sale of military and dual-use military/civilian goods worth £833m to North African countries with extensive records of internal repression, a This is Africa investigation reveals.

The items licensed for sale include tear gas, explosives, military class helicopters, sniper rifles, surface to surface missiles, and small arms such as shotguns and assault rifles.

According to data obtained through Freedom of Information requests and the Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT) database, sales to North Africa have weathered the aftermath of the Arab revolts that touched every country in the region, and saw Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali deposed.

Over a quarter of the licenses granted in the last five years, which have a known value of around £140m, are active to this day.

The two biggest North Africa markets for British arms exporters over the period, Libya and Algeria, are also currently included in the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation’s list of “priority markets for UK arms exports”, despite Libya being listed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a “country of human rights concern”.

Egypt: Leading importer of British arms

The most evident trend in arms sales to the region over the 2008-13 period is the rising prominence of Egypt as an export market, the data show

Despite being listed as a “country of concern” by the Foreign Office, Egypt now represents over 40 percent of the value of active licenses for British military and dual use goods sold to North Africa, making it the biggest current market for UK arms in the region.

According to Foreign Office data, 62 percent, or £77m of the £124m of controlled exports to Egypt, were purely for military goods with no dual civilian use. One of the largest arms deals to Egypt took place in March 2013, when the government approved a £43.5m license for components for military helicopters, This is Africa has found.

Egypt underwent a military coup in July last year, a development which subsequently led to the temporary suspension of 47 of the 134 active export licenses to the country in August after severe security crackdowns on supporters of the deposed former president, Mohamed Morsi.

Security forces raided protest camps at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on August 14 2013, killing hundreds in acts described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.

Export licenses were suspended pending investigation in cases where the goods they included “could be used for internal repression”. Their status was then reviewed, leading to seven being permanently revoked, and a further 16 placed on indefinite suspension. Twenty four were restored.

“Suspension will be kept under review until such time as conditions in Egypt indicate that it is appropriate to lift these restrictions,” the Government said in a response to UK Foreign Affairs Committee questioning on arms exports to Egypt.

“The suspended licences cover a wide range of equipment including spares for helicopters and aircraft, specialist software and communications equipment,” according to a public statement by the Export Control Organisation, which issues licences for the export of strategic goods.

Libya: The Qadhafi legacy

While Egypt is currently the leading importer of British arms in North Africa, Libya was the region’s largest overall recipient of UK military and dual-use goods, with £329m of controlled goods exported there from the UK between 2008 and 2013.

British corporate interests in Libya improved after diplomatic ties were reopened by a meeting between the Muammar Qadhafi and former British prime minister Tony Blair in 2004.

The majority of the goods were dual military and civilian use, but licenses were issued for military helmets, anti-riot shields, assault rifles, hand grenades, and combat shotguns.

An unknown British company also attempted to gain a license on August 11th 2010 for a £22m deal to export “spacecraft” to Libya.

This is Africa has been unable to discover exactly what goods were being exported or if the deal was successfully completed, however defence analyst and Middle East and North Africa editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jeremy Binnie says, “there are Wikileaks cables that say Gaddafi was interested in buying a US satellite capable of tracking desertification in Libya.”

“A British company may have been attempting to obtain a contract related to that satellite programme,” Mr Binnie says.

In September of last year an Early Day Motion was raised in parliament over British arms exports to Libya by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and signed by members of all parties.

The motion noted “an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time.”

Algeria: Falling sales in priority market

The single largest deal licensed by Export Control in North Africa took place in 2010, when the sale of military helicopters with a value of £260m was approved to Algeria. The Algerian state uses military helicopters in its border security programmes and in campaigns against Sahel militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI).

Algeria was the second highest recipient of UK arms during the period for which data are available (largely as a result of the single helicopter deal) but sales have fallen dramatically, and it now represents just 6 percent of the value of active British licenses to the region.

As the country with the largest defence budget in Africa, estimated to be over $10bn (approximately 3.8 percent of GDP), Algeria is now listed as a priority market for British military exports by the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation.

A total of 96 percent of controlled exports to Algeria were for military equipment, including weapon sights, aerial targeting equipment, and components for guided missiles.

Morocco: Arms in Western Sahara

In neighbouring Morocco, which was the subject of just under 20 percent of export licenses to the region, the majority of them military only, the largest single deal was a 2011 contract for technical equipment supporting the Moroccan drone programme.

Morocco is known to operate an unarmed version of the predator drone, a BAE systems “Skyeye” drone, and Moroccan forces have received training from the US military’s Africa Command in the operation of the smaller RQ-11B Raven drone.

British arms exports to Morocco have also involved the sale of armoured vehicles, sniper rifles, mortar bombs, tear gas, rocket launchers and surface to surface missiles. The majority of Morocco’s armed forces are deployed in the occupied territory of Western Sahara, where more than 100,000 troops are stationed but the population numbers just 500,000. International partners neither recognise Morocco’s legitimate authority over Western Sahara nor the state’s sovereignty.

Sudan and Tunisia: Smaller markets

Sudan is likely the smallest market for British arms in the region, as although controlled exports totalled a value slightly higher to Sudan than Tunisia, overwhelmingly exports to Sudan were for dual-use military and civilian goods.

Nonetheless, British companies have sold body armour, military helmets, weapon sight mounts, and military explosive devices to Sudan, which features alongside Libya as a Foreign Office- designated country of human rights concern.

Sudan is alleged to be out an air-war against its own population in Blue Nile State, South Kordofan, and Darfur, which according to the Enough Project’s Akshaya Kumar are “indiscriminate towards civilians” and constitute “war crimes”. The country’s leader Omar al-Bashir is charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Tunisia is the subject of just under 10 percent of licenses granted for restricted military or dual-use goods to North Africa over the last five years, and 15 percent of the active export licenses. Sales to Tunisia total around £20m and include cryptographic software, ammunition for small arms, military support vehicles, and anti-armour ammunition.

Human rights concerns

The British Government has faced written questions from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on its policy of allowing military equipment to be sold to regimes with histories of human rights abuses. In its response to concerns raised about the scale of arms sales to repressive regimes, the government said it “has confidence in the UK’s thorough and robust export licensing system to distinguish between exports for legitimate defence and security purposes, and exports which pose unacceptable risks to human rights.”

According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), only 14 percent of the British public believe that the UK is justified in selling military equipment to governments that have a poor human rights record.

“It is deeply concerning that the UK government is still exporting so many weapons to countries with such grave and serious human rights concerns,” Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for CAAT tells This is Africa.

“The Arab Spring should have seen a re-appraisal of how we do business with these countries. All military exports send a message of support to the recipient regime and undermine calls to respect human rights.”


This article was originally published with Financial Times: This is Africa on January 14th 2014.

About Tom Stevenson
Tom Stevenson is an Independent North Africa reporter

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