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The legal and regulatory framework for UK arms exports

Published Friday, September 30, 2016

This briefing provides an overview of the development of the legal and regulatory framework for UK arms exports since 1997. There have been two important changes to this regulatory framework since the Conservative Government took office in May 2015. The Government has announced the creation of a cross-government ‘Export Controls Joint Unit’ and responsibility for export controls has moved to the new Department for International Trade. Meanwhile, there has been mounting controversy over the use of UK-manufactured arms by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This has led to some to question whether the current licensing system is fit-for-purpose.

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Sir Richard Scott recommended in his 1996 report on the arms-to-Iraq inquiry that a thorough review of strategic export controls and export licensing procedures should be carried out. This briefing outlines the main changes to the UK’s legal and regulatory framework for arms exports that have been introduced since 1997 on the basis of that recommendation.

Main developments under the Coalition Government (2010-15)

Under the previous Government, controversy after 2011 about UK arms exports to Middle Eastern and North African countries involved in the Arab Spring led to the announcement of some changes in practice with regard to goods that might be used for internal repression.

The ratification by the UK of the Arms Trade Treaty required amending secondary legislation and updating the Consolidated Criteria, on which official decisions about whether to approve or refuse an export licence are based.

Concerns have been raised that the revised version of the Criteria, published in March 2014, is weaker than the 2000 original and that this has opened the way for a relaxation in UK arms export control policy. The previous Government denied that this had occurred.

Developments under the current Government

There have been two important changes to the EU and UK regulatory framework for arms exports since the Conservative Government took office in May 2015.

Firstly, the Government has announced the creation of an ‘Export Controls Joint Unit’, which will provide a “coordinated cross-government operation of export controls while maintaining a prompt and high quality licensing service for UK exporters.” However, DFID does not appear to be particularly involved in the work of the new unit. One issue yet to be clarified is the unit’s future relationship with the Export Control Organisation (ECO).

Secondly, since July 2016 responsibility for export controls has moved from the defunct Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the new Department for International Trade (DFIT). ECO is now part of DFIT.

The main controversy over UK arms export control policy since May 2015 has been about the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen by Saudi Arabia. Concerns that UK arms may have been used to commit violations of IHL in Yemen have led to calls from a range of quarters for the suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The Government has rejected these calls. A judicial review of the UK Government’s decision is expected to be heard in early 2017. If the High Court finds against the Government and orders it to reconsider its decision, this could have implications for the UK’s legal and regulatory framework for arms exports.

The Committees on Arms Export Controls have held an inquiry into this controversy. However, there was a split within the Committees on the key issue of whether or not to endorse the suspension of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen. This led ultimately to the publication of two separate reports. However, both reports included recommendations that the UK’s licensing system should be made more robust and transparent. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said: “I believe that there is a clear need for a wider discussion on the suitability of the laws governing arms exports.”

Commons Briefing papers SN02729

Author: Jon Lunn

Topics: Arms control, Defence policy, Human rights, International politics and government, International trade

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