The att and War Profiteering: the Case of the UK

In: Global Responsibility to Protect
Sam Perlo-Freeman Research Coordinator at Campaign Against Arms Trade, London, UK
Fellow at the World Peace Foundation, Somerville, MA, USA
Senior Associated Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Stockholm, Sweden,

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The Arms Trade Treaty is intended to prevent arms supplies likely to be used to violate International Humanitarian Law or human rights, or exacerbate conflict. Yet, some of the countries who most strongly championed the ATT have continued to supply arms in the face of clear evidence that they are being misused, most notably at present in the war in Yemen. This article addresses this apparent paradox in the case of the UK – the first major arms producing nation to publicly support the ATT. The article situates UK support for the ATT, under the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the context of the domestic political considerations of the Blair Government; in particular, the desire to restore the UK’s image as a “force for good” in the world in the wake of the Iraq War. At the same time, the high dependence of the UK arms industry on exports, in particular to Saudi Arabia, drove the government to fail to robustly implement ATT commitments – as well as those from the earlier EU Common Position, and to allow UK arms companies to continue to engage in “war profiteering” in Yemen and elsewhere.

At the heart of the process that led to the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty * (att) is a paradox: many of the countries most enthusiastically pushing for the att are also among the world’s largest arms producers and exporters, notably the major European arms producers, including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Other significant arms producers that were pro-att from an early stage include Ukraine, Brazil, and South Africa.

While the att has generated substantial progress in helping smaller and poorer nations implement effective arms export, import, and transit control regimes — and shown potential in aiding international action to reduce the illegal arms trade — it has not had any discernible effect on the legal global arms trade, either in terms of its overall size, or in the willingness of states to export arms to highly repressive regimes, or for use in some of the deadliest conflicts around the world, such as the wars in Yemen and Syria. ‘War profiteering’ by the leading global arms companies in the US, Western Europe, Russia, and China among others, continues unabated.

This article explores this apparent contradiction from the point of view of one particular major arms exporter, the UK, which was the first such nation to declare its support for an att, and became one of the leading champions of the Treaty within the UN.

Erickson tackles the paradox head-on in her book Dangerous Trade: Conventional Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Relations, 1 exploring the reasons why, first of all, most states worldwide, including many large arms producers, became willing over the course of the late 1990s and the 2000s, to support and adopt international controls on arms exports, at a regional and global level, when in the past such measures to limit national control in this area had been shunned; and second, why most such states have failed to follow through these international commitments with effective implementation that actually reduces their arms exports to repressive regimes and countries engaged in conflict, in particular in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (ihl). She argues that willingness to commit to international agreements relates in large part to reputational considerations, the desire to be seen as a ‘good international citizen’, while the unwillingness to implement relates to states’ interest in maintaining their domestic arms industries, and the lack of domestic political salience of arms trade issues — except in rare cases where specific ‘scandals’ reach national headlines and create political embarrassment for the government.

This argument is a powerful one, but is perhaps insufficient with regard to the United Kingdom, one of the world’s largest arms exporters, and an ‘early adopter’ among the major powers of the idea of an att — with the government declaring explicit support for it in September 2004 the first major arms producer to do so. 2 At this point, support for an att was not yet seen as a marker of a ‘good international citizen’.

In this article, I argue that the UK’s strong support for the att, which helped develop a growing international consensus in favour of the Treaty, was the result of a combination of domestic political factors for the then Labour government. Specifically, it was a way of balancing the government’s strong support for the UK arms industry with the vocal concerns of the government’s civil society support base in the wake of the Iraq War. The att was never intended to restrict the arms exports of the UK or other major producers, and certainly not to damage the economic interests of the arms industry.

Section 2 of this article sets out the role of the UK in the international arms trade, and its continuing record of selling arms to countries engaged in war and repression, even as new and apparently stronger arms export control measures were adopted. Section 3 discusses the domestic political considerations that made UK support for the att an opportune manoeuvre for assuaging civil society criticism, and its success in doing so. Section 4 discusses the reasons why, in spite of support for the att and other arms control measures, successive UK governments have remained committed to an active and permissive arms export policy, allowing UK arms companies to continue to engage in war profiteering in situations such as Yemen, with the vast revenues they gain from arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Section 5 concludes the article.

1 The UK and the Arms Trade

The UK’s position among global arms exporters depends on who is counting: according to sipri’s data on deliveries of major conventional weapons, the UK has typically been only the 6th largest exporter in recent years. 3 However, sipri’s measure excludes most components and subsystems, as well as military services, which form a large part of the value of the UK’s arms exports. In financial terms, the UK government regularly claims to be the world’s second-largest arms exporter; such a claim is hard to assess due to the widely varying information put out by different countries about their arms exports (and the complete absence of information by some, such as China), but a comparison of available data suggests that the UK and Russia vie closely for the number two position, well behind the US, but somewhat ahead of Germany, France, and Israel, who are among the next largest. 4 The total value of UK arms exports over the period 2009–2018 amounted to £82 billion, according to statistics from the Department of International Trade, although this excludes some exports, in particular transfers to partner nations in international cooperative arms programmes such as the Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft. 5 (See Appendix A for more information on UK arms export statistics).

1.1 Lack of Impact of the att

The UK’s support for an att, and the signing and entry into force of the Treaty in 2013 and 2014, have not had a noticeable effect on its arms exports. Indeed, while levels fluctuate from year to year, the general trend in UK arms exports, using a 5-year average, has been steadily upwards since 2005, which marked the end of a lull in the first half of the 2000s, reaching a record value of £9.3 billion for the period 2014–2018 (constant 2018 prices, see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

UK arms exports, 5-year average, constant prices

Citation: Global Responsibility to Protect 12, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/1875984X-01202004

Nor has there been a noticeable change for the better in terms of the recipients of UK arms exports, in terms of their status as democratic or authoritarian regimes, involvement in conflict, or respect for human rights and ihl. Saudi Arabia has for a long time been by far the largest customer for the UK arms trade, continuing unabated since the beginning of its military intervention in Yemen, despite the Saudi-led Coalition’s repeated violations of ihl in that conflict, and the devastating humanitarian catastrophe the conflict has created, largely a direct result of Coalition war strategies. The UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen are of course the subject of a major current legal case, with the UK Court of Appeal ruling in June 2019 that the government’s approach to export licensing for arms to Saudi Arabia was unlawful. 6

The lack of a clear change in policy following the signing of the att is perhaps unsurprising; after all, the criteria attached to the att relating to areas such as human rights and ihl are no stronger, indeed somewhat weaker, than the legally binding criteria attached to the EU Common Position on arms exports, and enshrined in UK law in the Consolidated Criteria. Indeed, from the beginning, when the then Labour government first announced support for the att, they made it clear that one of the benefits of such a treaty would be to bring other countries up to the same ‘rigorous’ standards practiced by the EU. 7 Stavrianakis goes further, arguing that the key purpose of the att was one of legitimising existing practices by Western states, including the UK, and more generally of legitimising the Western way of preparing for and waging war. 8 Nonetheless, the arming of Saudi Arabia and other countries participating in the Yemen War represents a continuing pattern in the gulf between the UK’s willingness to support and commit to international arms trade controls, and the weak implementation of these controls.

1.2 Constraints on UK Arms Sales

It would be wrong to claim that the UK’s arms export policy involves unconstrained ‘war profiteering’, or that the various export licensing criteria, and the policies by which they are implemented, are meaningless. The UK has supported arms embargoes in relation to numerous conflict situations, either through the UN or the EU, which in both cases (being a P5 member of the UN Security Council) they could have vetoed. At present, the UK has in place full arms embargoes against the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe; and arms embargoes allowing for limited exemptions in the cases of Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. 9 Once an embargo is imposed, the UK by and large keeps to it, as export licensing data shows, with certain exemptions such as for UN peacekeeping forces and humanitarian assistance. 10

However, these examples of restraint have a number of common characteristics: in none of these cases is the overall value of the arms trade very large; in none of them did the UK have a significant level of arms exports before the embargo; and none of these countries was a UK ally or important friendly nation, in trading or diplomatic terms. The only country with a high value arms trade where the UK has maintained a partial arms embargo is China, imposed by the EU following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The embargo is not absolute, covering only complete weapons and weapons systems, leaving policy regarding other military equipment to member states. The UK interprets the embargo as covering ‘lethal weapons, such as machine guns, large-calibre weapons, bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles’, and components thereof, major platforms including aircraft, warships, and armoured vehicles, and equipment that might be used for internal repression. 11 This has not stopped the granting of £253 million in arms export licenses to China since 2008, as well as 23 open licenses. 12 During the 2000s, there were moves within the EU, spearheaded by France, to lift the partial embargo against China; while the UK at times appeared sympathetic, they backed down under US pressure. 13 Thus, the UK’s reluctance to allow major arms exports to China relates primarily to its general tendency to cleave tightly to the US alliance wherever possible, with China being the US’s primary military competitor, and a long-time adversary in the Western Pacific region.

Aside from formal embargoes, there are some cases where the UK appears to follow a policy of partial restraint; for example, while UK arms exports to Israel are not insignificant, they tend to involve components rather than complete systems or actual weapons such as bombs and missiles. Nonetheless, this component trade can be substantial; Israel is a major customer for the US-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, having ordered over 50 planes, and the UK has a 15 per cent production stake in every F-35 produced. This is not reflected in the financial statistics for UK arms export licenses, as exports of equipment for use in the F-35 program are covered by an Open General Export License (ogel), which allows companies registered under the ogel to carry out unlimited deliveries without individual approval, and with no public reporting. 14 Thus, what appears as partial restraint could well be interpreted as a desire to avoid major controversy by making sales that slip largely under the radar of public attention.

In general, the UK seems to have adopted a cautious approach to the trade in small arms and light weapons, in particular to countries in conflict; again, however, this is a relatively low-value sector of the arms trade.

1.3 Unrestrained Arms Trade — Three Case Studies

Nonetheless, in cases of major arms purchasers, especially those who are considered friendly or allied countries, the UK has tended to display a strong willingness to export large volumes of arms in all categories, even in the presence of armed conflict and/or serious human rights concerns. The three key case studies documented below — two current (but long-standing), and one largely historic — illustrate the contradictions of UK arms export practice with the principles contained in the att and other arms export control agreements.

1.3.1 Saudi Arabia and the War in Yemen

The UK has authorised £5.3 billion in Single Individual Export Licenses (siels) to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began in March 2015, and a total of £6.3 billion to all current participants in the Saudi-led Coalition. However, this grossly understates the value of the UK arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Not only does it exclude open licenses, but also the value of the extensive support and maintenance services provided on the ground in Saudi Arabia by bae Systems, as part of Saudi-UK defence cooperation agreements. According to bae Annual Reports, the company has received £12.5 billion in revenues from the Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation between 2015 and 2018. 15 This of course does not include exports by other UK companies. UK arms sales and technical support have been absolutely crucial to enabling the Saudi-led war in Yemen; UK aircrafts make up around half of the Saudi Air Force’s strike force (the other half are from the US), and it could not operate without UK support, as well as the continuing supply of armaments and spares. 16

In response to criticisms of these sales in the face of the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen, and persistent evidence of serious violations of ihl by the Saudi Coalition, the UK government has continued to insist that it is following a ‘rigorous and robust’ export control process, 17 and that its arms sales give the UK influence over Saudi Arabia, including through training and advice on targeting, to avoid civilian casualties. However, through the course of the Judicial Review proceeding through the UK courts, a number of things have become clear. First, that the numerous interventions by the UK in relation to training, advice, and consultation with the Saudi armed forces, have consistently been followed by further instances of attacks on civilian targets, many of which appear highly likely to be violations of ihl. The UK’s training efforts have had no discernible effect, yet have continued to be used as a reason for concluding that there is no ‘clear risk’ that UK arms might be used to commit serious violations of ihl — which would require the UK government to deny an export license. Second, that the assessment of ‘clear risk’, astonishingly, did not include any attempt to assess whether there had been a pattern of ihl violations in the past, or indeed whether any previous incident tracked by the Ministry of Defence or mod (based on reports from the UN and ngos) was, or might have been, a violation. Rather, the government concluded that there was no ‘clear risk’ based on its assessment of the Coalition’s policies and procedures, and the UK’s support and advice for these. It was this failure to even assess past incidents that the Court of Appeal concluded in June 2019 to be ‘irrational and unlawful’. 18

Given the centrality of exports to Saudi Arabia in maintaining the health of the UK arms industry (see Section 4), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the export licensing process, and the interpretation of the Consolidated Criteria used as part of this process, was designed around the need to produce a positive outcome in terms of allowing export licenses.

1.3.2 Turkey

Turkey has for a long time been a significant UK arms customer, in spite of persistent severe human rights violations, and on-and-off armed conflict in the predominantly Kurdish south-east of the country against the pkk armed group. In the 1990s, this involved severe military repression on the part of the Turkish government, with around 40,000 people killed (by all sides) since the conflict started in the 1980s, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced following the destruction of villages by the military. The conflict continued into the 2000s, despite periodic short-lived ceasefires. A more serious peace effort led to a ceasefire in 2013, but this collapsed in 2015, leading to renewed conflict and repression. More recently, Turkey has extended the war to northern Syria, against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (sdf), first in Afrin and more recently east of the Euphrates. Meanwhile, President Erdogan’s repression of journalists, protestors, and opposition figures has escalated in recent years. 19

UK arms sales to Turkey have included £905 million in siels since the end of the ceasefire in July 2015, making Turkey the 5th largest recipient of siels by value in this period. Again, this does not include 73 open licenses. Most notably, Turkey is a partner in the European A400M transport aircraft programme, for which the wings are made in the UK, and was until recently a partner in the US F-35 programme, in which the UK has a 15 per cent stake. Both of these programmes are conducted through ogels, and so are not included in the siel figures. In addition, bae Systems signed a £100 million contract in 2018 with Turkish Aerospace Industries to help the latter with the development of a Turkish-designed fighter aircraft. 20

In response to the Turkish invasion of north-east Syria in October 2019, however, the UK announced a suspension of new arms export licenses to Turkey pending a review. 21 However, this suspension does not affect existing export licenses, including a number of significant open licenses that remain extant. How long this suspension will be maintained, or whether arms sales will resume once the immediate public attention to the crisis has died down, remains to be seen.

1.3.3 Indonesia

UK arms sales to Indonesia were highly controversial during the 1990s, when the country was in illegal occupation of East Timor. Indonesia represented a key test case for the incoming Labour government of 1997, and the government’s response is one that illustrates many of the patterns of arms export policy since then.

Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and occupation of East Timor is estimated to have caused over 100,000 civilian deaths in a country with a pre-war population of 600,000, 22 mostly due to the famine and disease that came as a result of the Indonesian military’s war strategies, but also from direct massacres, such as over 100 protestors shot dead in the capital Dili in 1991. 23 Indonesia was also ruled by a highly repressive dictatorship under President (former General) Suharto, whose 1965 rise to power involved the genocide of over 500,000 political opponents. Heavy repression persisted throughout Suharto’s rule, especially in East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh. Suharto’s ouster in 1998 led to significant (though fragile) democratisation in Indonesia, a process leading to independence for East Timor in 1999, and an eventual peace in Aceh in 2005, although severe repression continues in West Papua. 24

UK arms sales to Indonesia during the 1990s included Hawk trainer/light attack aircraft and armoured vehicles. These were allowed in spite of the fact that similar trainer/light attack aircraft had been instrumental in Indonesia’s conquest of the half-island, and some evidence of the specific use of previously-sold Hawks. UK-supplied armoured vehicles were also used by the then Suharto dictatorship against protestors in Indonesia.

The Labour government that came to power in 1997 promised a foreign policy with an ‘ethical dimension’, and in particular pledged to impose a tighter arms export policy that would avoid scandals such as the arms-to-Iraq scandal of the previous government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, one of the first decisions faced by the new government in summer 1997 was whether to revoke the existing export licenses for the Hawks and armoured vehicles; it chose not to, and continued to allow new export licenses for arms sales to Indonesia. 25 Then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook later commented that he had never known Prime Minister Tony Blair to take a decision that would be ‘incommoding’ to bae Systems, maker of the Hawks. 26

Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, interim Indonesian President B.J. Habibie allowed an independence referendum to be held in East Timor in August 1999. However, the Indonesian military armed a network of militia who engaged in a campaign of violent intimidation, including several massacres, in the run-up to the referendum. Despite warnings from ngos of an imminent catastrophe, the UK’s position on arms supplies remained unchanged. Following the overwhelming vote for independence, these militias, together with Indonesian regular forces, engaged in a campaign of mass violence that killed at least 1000 people and displaced 200,000. 27

This finally led the EU to impose an arms embargo in September 1999, although this ended in January 2000 following the Indonesian withdrawal and the arrival of UN peacekeeping forces. This was also around the time when the new EU Code of Conduct on arms exports was being developed. The export of Hawks to Indonesia was briefly suspended, but resumed in 2000. 28 However, conflict continued in Aceh until 2005, and is still continuing in West Papua, where human rights abuses by the Indonesian military have been escalating. Indonesia remains a significant UK arms customer, with £531 million in siel licenses between 2009 and 2018.

While the Hawk controversy happened long before the UK showed interest in an att, and key decisions were taken even before the EU Code of Conduct, the patterns this case reveals are resonant of more recent cases: a strong public commitment to a responsible arms export policy, with tighter controls; a failure to follow this up with implementation in the face of what ought to have been a clear-cut case of extreme military repression by the customer; a brief temporary cessation of exports in response to an acute crisis; and a swift resumption once this immediate crisis was passed; remaining conflict situations were sufficiently low profile that arms sales would not cause significant political difficulties.

UK government support for arms exports goes beyond a permissive approach to export licensing, at least where it concerns major customers, to an active export promotion strategy. This is made clear in numerous government statements. 29 Government support for arms exports is institutionalised in the Department for International Trade Defence and Security Organisation (dso), which is dedicated to supporting military and security exports. Another important form of support is through export credits, which provide subsidised financing and insurance for large export orders that might otherwise find it difficult to obtain commercially. A substantial share of UK Export Finance (ukef)’s export credit support goes to arms deals, representing a significant implicit subsidy to the arms trade. 30 Most recently, in 2018, the government approved a record £5 billion in export credit support for the sale of Typhoon aircraft to Qatar, in spite of a formal warning from the head of ukef that the size of the deal breached normal ukef risk guidance. 31

2 Behind the UK’s Support for Stronger Export Controls, including the att

These examples display a pattern over a long period of time that is consistent with Erickson’s observations about many major Western arms exporters in general in relation to the att: a high willingness to commit to stronger controls on paper, but a reluctance to follow through with a restrictive implementation of these controls in practice, especially where the financial stakes are high. 32 Reasonably tight controls may be applied when financial and diplomatic stakes are low, but a much more permissive approach is taken towards major customers or important friendly nations. Stricter controls may be taken on occasion in response to acute crises, but such action is reactive rather than precautionary, and often temporary in nature. 33

Stavrianakis also analyses the way that apparently strong controls on paper are undermined by a flexible approach to interpretation that sets a very high bar for denial of export licenses, and tends to favour the interests of the arms industry over human rights and humanitarian concerns. 34 The controls themselves, with their case-by-case assessment of licenses, and the ambiguity surrounding what constitutes a ‘clear risk’, are arguably written with such flexibility in mind.

Given the UK’s strong support for arms exports, overriding concerns relating to conflict and human rights, and even to the use of UK arms to commit serious violations of ihl, the simultaneous support of the UK government for international measures to control arms exports, including criteria specifically relating to conflict, human rights, and ihl, requires explanation. Even if the government never intended for such agreements to impose binding restrictions on major UK arms exports, why not only sign up to, but act as strong promoters of, agreements which can then be used against the government to challenge such exports, support charges of hypocrisy, and even lead to legal challenges?

This question applies not only to the att, but before that to the EU Code of Conduct and Common Position, and before that to the newly-elected Labour government’s (national) commitment to a foreign policy with an ‘ethical dimension’.

I would argue that the UK’s willingness to commit to strong controls, and indeed to be one of the leaders of the drive for international agreements for such controls, derives from its domestic political factors. This is perhaps surprising, given the general low importance of foreign policy for most voters, 35 but there were a number of specific factors that gave the issue of arms exports more salience, and made the government at least want to appear to be taking the matter of responsible controls seriously.

The landslide election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997 followed years of a scandal-plagued, and often chaotic and divided Conservative government under Prime Minister John Major. One of the major sources of division among the Conservative Party was over Europe, with the party’s Eurosceptic faction a perpetual thorn in Major’s side — this was at a time before the idea of leaving the EU altogether had gained such widespread support. These divisions gave the party an image of an insular, ‘Little England’ mentality. In contrast, Blair wanted to emphasise a modern, outgoing country that would be engaged in the international arena, and would seek to be a ‘force for good’ in the world, pursuing a foreign policy with an ethical dimension. 36

A more specifically arms trade-related factor was the Scott Report, published in 1996, on the ‘Arms to Iraq’ scandal, which showed that the government had violated its own export control policies and sought, ineffectively, to cover this up. Thus, ‘irresponsible’ arms exports, while not an issue at the forefront of the domestic debate, became emblematic of the ‘bad old ways’ that New Labour would sweep aside. 37

However, once in power, the government saw, accurately, little electoral cost to prioritising arms industry interests in decisions such as the Indonesia sales, while maintaining its theoretical commitment to stronger controls both through national policies and, soon afterwards in 1998, through the adoption of the EU Code of Conduct, for which the UK pushed strongly. While campaign groups protested decisions over Indonesia and other dubious cases, this made little impact on overall support for the government. One minister even suggested that promising an ‘ethical foreign policy’ may have been a mistake. 38

Fast forwarding to 2004, foreign policy issues were given far greater public salience by the unpopular decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, the failure to find wmd, and the catastrophic consequences of the invasion that were already becoming clear. As well as severely impacting the government’s popularity generally, and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s in particular, the invasion was especially unpopular within the more left-wing inclined Labour Party membership. The war had done severe damage to Blair’s goal of presenting the UK as a ‘force for good’ in the world, following more successful and popular interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, where the failures of the invasion had yet to become so apparent).

Blair was seeking to redeem his reputation through active promotion of an international development agenda, including aid, trade development, and debt reduction, culminating at the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005, along with the publication of the Government’s Commission for Africa report in the same year. 39

In this climate, arms sales to repressive regimes and regions of conflict acted as a further blot on the government’s image. By 2004, a growing coalition of ngos who had not previously taken such a strong interest in the arms trade, including Oxfam and Amnesty International, had formed a Control Arms campaign which was gaining significant public traction, with a demand for an international Arms Trade Treaty one of its central planks. 40 Again, while not a matter of central concern for the general public, it was an important issue for constituencies whose support Blair was particularly keen to enlist for his international development agenda, and who were of course close partners of the Department for International Development (DfID), which played a central role in this agenda. 41

In this context, the government’s surprise declaration of support for an att at the Labour Party conference in September 2004 was a political masterstroke. Within the party, it reassured a highly concerned and unsettled base, in the wake of Iraq, that Labour was still committed to being a force for good in the world. By acceding to the key demand of the Control Arms Coalition, it brought these groups into the process that the government was promoting, so that they were ‘inside the tent pissing out’, rather than ‘outside the tent pissing in’. While criticism of specific sales by such groups did not end, UK support for the att did make them critical partners with the government rather than simply adversaries condemning the government’s failure. At the same time, it isolated more radical anti-arms trade voices such as Campaign Against Arms Trade, which did not engage with the att process, predicting (accurately) that it would be used to create an image of a government committed to controls, but would not have any effect in restricting major arms exports in practice. 42

UK support for the att survived the change in administration from Labour to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, and then to Conservative solo rule in 2015. By the time the new government came to power in 2010, the att process was well advanced, and the UK had established a position as a leading proponent and driver of the process. To have changed course at this stage (a move that would certainly have been opposed by the Liberal Democrat Coalition partners in any case), would have lost the UK considerable credibility on the international stage; by this point, Erickson’s case for international reputational considerations as a motivation for maintaining existing policy was a strong one. In any case, given the limited effect of any likely att in practical terms on UK arms sales, the UK’s role as champion of the att represented a low-cost virtue signal. Generally speaking, the broad contours of UK foreign policy were little changed under the new government. Indeed, subsequent administrations have maintained rather costlier commitments to positive international actions in maintaining UK oda spending at the UN target level of 0.7 per cent of gdp, another policy first enacted by the previous Labour government.

3 War Profiteering? Why the UK Remains Committed to Conflict-Fuelling Arms Sales

The continuing willingness of the UK, as with other major arms producers regardless of their relation to the att, to continue to supply arms for use in wars such as in Yemen, is easier to understand in the context of the reasons these countries supported the att in the first place, discussed above and by Erickson. 43 Namely, that the att was never intended as a means of significantly restricting the global trade in arms. Rather, it was a means of political and diplomatic positioning and signalling, related to both domestic and international politics. This article has discussed the domestic political context in the UK, while Erickson focuses on the international political context that drove att negotiations.

Certainly, the att had other, more positive goals: regulating the arms trade, by ensuring that all signatories have in place an export, import, and transit control regime that is fit for purpose; providing capacity-building support to countries without such systems or with weak systems, to bring them up to international standards; 44 and promoting global action against the illicit trade in arms. 45 But a significant tightening of export practice on the part of major arms producers was never on the agenda of these countries, however much it was on the agenda of the ngos whose advocacy provided the impetus for the att in the first place.

Notwithstanding the att and the Common Position, successive UK governments have displayed a strong commitment to continue supplying arms to controversial customers, including in situations of severe conflict and humanitarian concern, even when this has involved considerable political cost. This is true above all in the case of Saudi Arabia, by far the UK’s largest arms export customer.

Erickson, in discussing failures of implementation of international export control measures by arms producing nations, nonetheless argues that countries are more likely to respond with tighter controls in specific cases in response to particular scandals relating to arms sales that pierce public consciousness. 46 This certainly fits the pattern with the UK ‘arms to Iraq’ scandal in the 1990s, which was a significant driver of Labour’s subsequent efforts (however limited) to tighten export control regulations and improve transparency from 1997 onwards, as discussed above. However, in relation to Saudi Arabia, the UK government has been willing to weather repeated scandals to maintain arms sales. This includes the 2006 cancellation of the Serious Fraud Office investigation into corruption in bae Systems’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which incurred strong criticism from the oecd, the US, and even from within City of London financial institutions; 47 the repeated bombings of civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition; and most recently, the Court of Appeal ruling against the government. Why have such ‘scandals’ had such little effect on policy in this case? On the international front, the continued arming of Saudi Arabia despite the war in Yemen has perhaps limited diplomatic consequences, as other major suppliers of the Saudi-led Coalition have likewise continued arms sales, in particular the US and France; 48 and while some smaller suppliers have restricted sales, even Sweden, which often presents itself as a model of restraint, has continued with sales of combat radar systems to uae. 49 Domestically, while arms sales to Saudi Arabia are broadly unpopular, 50 arguably the Yemen War has not represented part of a clear defining narrative of the government in the same way the Iraq scandal did in the 1990s, where it fit with the general picture of incompetence and corruption that beset the Major government.

Moreover, the extraordinary deference to Saudi interests and those of the UK arms industry (in particular bae Systems) reflects the centrality of Saudi Arabia as a customer for UK arms, in many ways propping up substantial sections of the UK arms industry, in particular combat aviation. This has made governments willing to absorb a larger share of negative headlines than might have otherwise been the case with other arms scandals.

3.1 The Role of Saudi Arabia for the UK Arms Industry

Exactly how much the UK sells to Saudi Arabia is not clear, due to the severe lack of transparency in UK arms export data (Appendix A). However, some very useful information can be obtained from bae Systems’ annual reports, which give figures for sales by destination and by major customer. 51 Over the period 2009–2018, the total value of bae’s revenue from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Defence and Aviation amounted to £29.0 billion. According to bae reports, the operating segments of the company from which this revenue was derived were ones either based in the UK, or based in Saudi Arabia and operating under the Saudi-British Defence Cooperation Agreement (and not, for example, from bae’s very substantial US operations). This figure compares with just £10 billion worth of siels issued for exports to Saudi Arabia over the same period, for all companies.

UK exports to Saudi Arabia almost certainly not covered by these figures include £2.2 billion worth of siel licenses in the ML4 category (bombs, missiles, rockets, countermeasures), which is not the focus of bae’s business with Saudi Arabia. 52 The vast majority of siel licenses to Saudi Arabia come under either the ML4 or ML10 category (aircraft and components, £7.7 billion). However, even this is not enough, as some sales of bombs and missiles (used extensively in Yemen) have been made under oiels. Hence, we can say with reasonable confidence that total UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia over the period 2009–2018 amounted to at least £31.2 billion. This adds up to 38 per cent of total UK arms exports over the period, based on the dso figures.

Many other UK companies, of course, are involved in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as the primary contractors, the producers of aircraft (bae), and missiles (chiefly mbda and Raytheon UK). In the aerospace sector in particular many subcontractors are involved, such as Rolls Royce (engines), 53 gkn (canopies), 54 and Thales UK (avionics). 55 Country-specific revenue figures for these companies are not, however, available. As these are subcontractors, their sales would not add to the overall value of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia. However, it is important to bear in mind that Saudi exports are important not only to the prime contractors.

The importance of this arms sales relationship with Saudi Arabia for the UK arms industry, and in particular for bae Systems, cannot therefore be overstated. These sales represent around one sixth of bae’s revenues over the period, and thus, given the proportion of bae’s business that derives from its US and other international operations, probably close to one third of the company’s UK-generated revenue (including activities in Saudi Arabia under Saudi-UK agreements). 56 bae is in turn not only by far the largest UK arms company, but the central provider of major weapons platforms to the UK mod in all of the air, maritime, and land domains. As such, bae has an extremely close working relationship with the mod, and is regarded as of critical strategic importance to the UK’s Defence Industrial Base (dib). In this context, former Foreign Minister Robin Cook’s comment about Tony Blair’s favourable attitude to the company (to say the least) is easy to understand. In particular, it is entirely possible that, without the sales to Saudi Arabia, substantial sections of the UK dib, the combat aircraft sector in particular, might cease to be viable.

The figure of £31 billion over 10 years, or £3.1 billion a year, is miniscule in relation to the overall UK gdp of over £2 trillion, 57 but potentially critical to the UK’s ability to maintain a viable dib. ‘War Profiteering’ is therefore perhaps not the most accurate term for understanding the UK government’s willingness to place arms sales to Saudi Arabia over humanitarian concerns, international anti-corruption efforts, the att, and even (according to the Court of Appeal) any reasonable reading of UK law. Rather, it is a question of a relationship of critical strategic dependence — not of the arms buyer on its supplier as may often be the case, but of the UK dib on its Saudi customer.

While Saudi Arabia is a special case, the general principle of ‘export or die’ for a non-superpower arms producer such as the UK applies more broadly. For most arms producers, domestic demand is insufficient, not only for the profitability of the industry, but for the long-term viability of key sectors, in terms of maintaining technological know-how, skills and experience, and thus capability. The impetus to export as a strategic necessity for maintaining domestic technological capabilities thus tends to override the concerns for the impact of the arms trade reflected in international arms transfers controls such as the att.

4 Conclusions

The UK has been, and remains, a leading champion of the att, as well as of previous arms export control measures, in particular the EU Code of Conduct and Common Position. At the same time, the UK consistently violates the spirit, and possibly the letter, of such agreements, by supplying arms to conflict situations involving large-scale civilian casualties and violations of ihl, as well as to regimes engaged in severe internal repression, whether or not UK arms are directly used in such repression.

This article argues that the UK never intended such agreements to impose new and binding restrictions on UK arms sales to major customers, even in the most controversial of cases, and certainly not to reduce the overall level of UK arms exports — something which successive UK governments have been committed to promoting. Rather, support for the att and the EU Code of Conduct/Common Position has served a political purpose, domestic and internationally, in rescuing the reputation of the UK government in the eyes of key audiences, as being in some measure a ‘force for good’ in the world, especially in relation to international aid, debt, and development. A poor record on arms exports, combined with the (much more politically salient) Iraq War had severely damaged this reputation in the eyes of key partners in the Blair government’s development agenda in particular. Support for the att served to mollify criticism from ngos, giving them a stake in the att negotiation process.

While this effort succeeded politically in many respects, it has not removed the contradiction between rhetoric, international agreements, and national legislation, on the one hand, and export practice on the other. The gulf between these has been exposed especially by the horrific impact of the war in Yemen, and the utter refusal of the government to reconsider arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its Coalition partners. Not only has this damaged the UK’s reputation among ngos and international partners (many of whom have halted arms exports to Saudi Arabia), but has even exposed the government to legal problems, as the Court of Appeal ruling makes it questionable whether its arms export criteria are quite as flexible in interpretation as they would like them to be.

How the current government will respond to this remains to be seen, and may depend on the final outcome of court proceedings. Actually, implementing tighter controls would put in jeopardy the health of the UK arms industry, which the government regards as strategically essential; withdrawing support for the att, or weakening export control legislation (which will become possible after Brexit) would be a very public move carrying a high political cost. Unless forced into this choice by the courts, the government may well opt for maintaining current policies, continuing to repeat the ever-less credible mantra of a ‘rigorous and robust’ export control regime, and hoping that the matter remains a relatively minor concern for the majority of the electorate.

Appendix A. Data on UK Arms Exports

There is a severe lack of transparency in UK arms exports data, in spite of what appears at first sight to be a very large and detailed quantity of information published. Data on UK arms exports come from two sources:

  1. 1. Export license data. Details of export licenses issued for military and dual use equipment are published in quarterly reports, and made available through an online government database. 58 However, this database is not very user-friendly, and the information is ‘scraped’ and provided in a much more accessible form in an online database by Campaign Against Arms Trade. 59 This provides considerable detail on individual licenses, including the recipient, the types of item covered, and their category in the EU Common Military List. 60 Financial values are also provided, by military list category, for one type of license: Single Individual Export Licenses (siels). These licenses authorise a single delivery of a specified quantity and value of equipment to the specified recipient. However, this excludes a large proportion of UK arms exports which take place under Open Individual Export Licenses (oiels), which allow unlimited deliveries of the specified equipment to a list of recipients over the period of validity (normally 3–5 years); and Open General Export Licenses (ogels), which cover large categories of recipients and equipment, are valid indefinitely, and allow companies that register under the ogel to make unlimited exports under the terms of the ogel without further licensing. Many ogels cover sales to partner countries in specific international weapons programmes, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the A400M transport aircraft, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. No financial value is attached to oiels or ogels. 61 Moreover, the license values do not cover the value of military services provided by bae Systems, in conjunction with the UK mod, to the Saudi military, under the UK-Saudi Defence Cooperation agreement.
  2. 2. Contract data. The second source of data is annual statistics on Defence and Security exports produced by the Department for International Trade Defence Services Organisation (dso). 62 These figures are based on a survey of arms and security companies, and provide figures for the value of contracts signed each year. These figures are much higher than the siel license figures, and include equipment licensed under all types of export licenses, as well as military services in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Even so, they exclude exports to partner countries relating to cooperative weapons programmes, as do the license figures. The problem with this data is that virtually no detail is provided, such as a breakdown of exports by customer. The only breakdown of the figures is by region (Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America), and by ‘domain’ (Air, Naval, Land). Thus, the value of exports to Saudi Arabia, for example, is not available.

Hence, we have license data which are very detailed, and can be broken down by country and category, but which are gross underestimates, and contract data, which give a far more comprehensive estimate, but virtually no detail. Over the period 2009–2018, the total value of siels issued to all countries amounted to £40 billion, while the total value of arms export contracts signed, according to dso, amounted to £82 billion. While some discrepancy is to be expected due to the different timing of export license issuance compared to contract signature, this clearly demonstrates a huge volume of exports that are not covered by the licensing statistics. 63


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAAT, WPF, or SIPRI.


Jennifer L. Erickson, Dangerous Trade: Conventional Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).


bbc News, ‘Britain Backs Arms Treaty Calls’, 30 September 2004,


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri), ‘Arms Transfers Database’,


Sam Perlo-Freeman, ‘How Big is the International Arms Trade’ (revised), Occasional Paper, World Peace Foundation, July 2018,


UK Department for International Trade Defence and Security Organisation, ‘UK Defence and Security Export Figures’, last updated 30 July 2019,


Legal documents relating to the case can be found on the website of Campaign Against Arms Trade (caat),


Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Pressure Mounts for Tough Arms Treaty Talk at UN Talks’, The Guardian, 27 June 2012,; also see note 1.


Anna Stavrianakis, ‘Legitimizing Liberal Militarism: Politics, Law and War in the Arms Trade Treaty’, Third World Quarterly, 37/5: 840–865 (2016).


See the UK arms export data browser,; see also Appendix A below. An analysis of embargoed destinations (excepting those such as China where the embargo is intentionally partial, or those where it only applies to non-state actors) shows very limited export licenses, the vast majority of which are for use by international organisations and/or for humanitarian purposes, and/or consist of items such as body armour and bomb disposal equipment that have a primarily protective purpose. However, a small number of licenses in some cases may raise more cause for concern. Generally, though, unless there are hitherto unrevealed clandestine transfers, arms embargoes appear to be well observed.


All figures on UK export licenses are taken from the caat export licensing database, see note 9, and Appendix A.


Jerker Hellström, ‘The EU Arms Embargo on China: a Swedish Perspective’, Report, Swedish Defence Research Agency (foi), January 2010,


bae Systems annual reports, 2009–2018,


Mike Lewis and Katherine Templar, ‘UK Personnel Supporting the Saudi Armed Forces — Risk, Knowledge, and Accountability’, 2018,


See, for example, Anna Stavrianakis, ‘When “Anxious Scrutiny” of Arms Exports Facilitates Humanitarian Disaster’, The Political Quarterly, 89/1: 92–99 (2018).


See Appeal Court judgement, note 6 above.


Patrick Wintour and Diana Sabbagh, ‘UK Suspends Arms Exports to Turkey to prevent Use in Syria’, The Guardian, 16 October 2019,


Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, ‘Conflict Related Deaths in Timor Leste 1974–1999: The Findings of the Report Chega!’, 31 October 2005,


bbc News, ‘East Timor Profile — Timeline’, 26 February 2018,


See, for example,


See Nicholas Gilby, ‘Arms Exports to Indonesia’, Campaign Against Arms Trade, October 1999,, for a record of UK arms exports to Indonesia up to October of that year; see also Campaign Against Arms Trade/tapol, ‘Arms to Indonesia’, Factsheet, December 2005,


Robin Cook, Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).


Leonard C. Sebastian and Anthony L. Smith, ‘The East Timor Crisis: A Test Case for Humanitarian Intervention’, in Daljit Singh (ed.), Southeast Asian Affairs (Singapore: iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2000), pp. 64–84.


sipri, ‘Arms Transfers Database’.


For example, see Defence Secretary keynote speech at dsei 2019,; see also Phillip Dunne MP, ‘Growing the Contribution of Defence to UK Prosperity’, Report for the Secretary of Defence, July 2018, for a favourable commentary on UK government support for arms exports.


Sam Perlo-Freeman, ‘Special Treatment: UK Government Support for the Arms Industry and Trade’, sipri/caat, November 2016,


Alan Tovey, ‘bae Signs £5bn Qatar Fighter Sale after Liam Fox Tells ukef to Back Deal’, The Telegraph, 18 September 2018,


Erickson, Dangerous Trade.


Another example of this is the suspension of licenses for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong in response to the use of UK-supplied tear gas against ‘Umbrella Movement’ protesters in 2014; sales of such equipment were resumed a few months later, only to be suspended again when a new round of protests and repression broke out in 2019.


Anna Stavrianakis, ‘The Facade of Arms Control: How the UK’s Export Licensing System Facilitates the Arms Trade’, caat Goodwin Paper No. 6, February 2008,; Stavrianakis, ‘When “Anxious Scrutiny” of Arms Exports Facilitates Humanitarian Disaster’.


For example, Thibaud Harrois, ‘Little Britain? The Debate on Britain’s Foreign and Defence Policy’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique (French Journal of British Studies), XX/3 (2015), Brexit, of course, is a major exception to this tendency.


Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s first major foreign policy speech after the election, on 11 May 1997, set out both key phrases, ‘an ethical dimension to foreign policy’, and ‘a force for good in the world’, as well as emphasising an end to ‘splendid isolation’, of which they accused the previous Conservative government, and pledging to make the UK a leading player in Europe. See The Guardian, ‘Robin Cook’s Speech on the Government’s ­Ethical Foreign Policy’, 12 May 1997,


bbc News, ‘Scott Attacks Arms Trade Reform Failure’, 22 January 2001,


Ewen MacAskill and Vikram Dodd, ‘Ethical Policy Ran into Armoured Attack’, The Guardian, 4 September 2000,


Commission for Africa, ‘2005 Report’,


In Taking Aim at the Arms Trade Stavrianakis discusses the role of ngos in shaping attitudes and policies towards the arms trade over this period: Anna Stavrianakis, Taking Aim at the Arms Trade: ngos, Global Civil Society and the World Military Order (London: Zed Books, 2010).


On the close relationship between ngos such as Oxfam and the government in shaping the development agenda, in particular around the G8 Gleneagles summit in 2005, see Katharine Quarmby, ‘Why Oxfam Is Failing Africa’, New Statesman, 30 May 2005,


See caat, ‘Arms Trade Treaty’,


Erickson, Dangerous Trade.


See for a database of such capacity-building efforts related to the att worldwide, developed by sipri. See also Mark Bromley, Giovanna Maletta, and Kolja Brockmann, ‘Arms Transfer and salw Controls in the Middle East and North Africa: Mapping Capacity-Building Efforts’, sipri Background Paper, November 2018,; Mark Bromley and Alfredo Malaret, ‘att-Related Activities in Latin America and the Caribbean: Identifying Gaps and Improving Coordination’, sipri Background Paper, February 2017, and Christina Arabia and Mark Bromley, ‘att-Related Outreach Assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa: Identifying Gaps and Improving Coordination’, sipri Background Paper, February 2016, — on such efforts in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, respectively, and generally see


Mark Bromley, for example, discusses progress in tackling illicit diversion of arms, among other things, in his report on the 4th att Conference of State Parties: Mark Bromley, ‘The State of the Arms Trade Treaty: Advancing Efforts on International Assistance and Illicit Diversion’, sipri Blog, 29 August 2018,


Erickson, Dangerous Trade.


See, for example, David Wearing, ‘UK Arms Sales to the Gulf Arab Monarchies: Corruption in a Strategic Context’, World Peace Foundation Blog, 17 June 2019,


Sam Perlo-Freeman, ‘Who is Arming the Yemen War? An Update”, World Peace Foundation, 19 March 2019,


Svenska Freds och Skiljedoms Föreningen [Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society], ‘Slutsats efter Januariavtalet: Punkt 70 betyder ingenting’ [Conclusion Following January Agreement: Point 70 Means Nothing], 26 November 2019,


Doward, James, ‘Most Britons Believe Selling Arms to Saudis is “Unacceptable”’, The Guardian, 5 February 2017,


Archived at the bae Systems website,


bae has a 37.5 per cent stake in missile maker mbda, which does have sales to Saudi Arabia. However, the revenue figures quoted above do not include bae’s share of equity accounted investments, including mbda (they are included in higher ‘sales’ figures, but these are not available for the ksa moda).


bae Annual reports do not provide figures for revenue by origin, only by destination. For a (somewhat old) rough estimate of the proportion of bae revenue that is ‘British’, i.e. generated from activities in the UK, see Sam Perlo-Freeman, ‘The United Kingdom Arms Industry in a Globalized World’, in Andrew T. H. Tan (ed.), The Global Arms Trade: A Handbook (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 250–265, which gives a ballpark estimate of 50 per cent. An analysis of recent annual reports, including segmental and employment information, suggests a similar figure. This includes revenue generated from within Saudi Arabia, as it is based on UK-Saudi contracts and government-to-government agreements.


Also detailed are single and open trade licenses, sitcls and oitcls, which authorise the brokering of arms by UK-based individuals and entities, where the arms do not actually touch UK soil. These also do not have values attached.


It’s worse than that. Some exports under common programmes appear to have been licensed under siels rather than the relevant ogels, in particular £2.8 billion worth of equipment for the A400M licensed to France in 2011 (components for military support aircraft, and components for military aero engines). Being for a cooperative arms programme, this would not have been included in the dso contract figures. As a result, while in general the value of contracts is far higher than the value of siels, in the case of exports to Europe, the siel values are actually higher. A further source of error is that one license for Typhoon deliveries to Saudi Arabia expired before it could be fulfilled, and was reissued, creating double counting in the siel values. These discrepancies mean that the value of exports included in the dso figures but not in the siel figures must be correspondingly higher. Equivalently, if we were to draw a Venn diagram of exports covered by the dso figures and exports covered by the siel figures, these two would be overlapping, rather than one contained wholly within the other. Moreover, some exports for cooperative programmes would be within neither.

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