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What are arms exports?

Arms exports are the export of military and dual use items (that could be used for military or civilian use) to other nations.

The UK is one of the largest exporters of arms in the world. According to one estimate, provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK was the seventh largest exporter of major conventional weapons between 2018 and 2022 (behind the US, Russia, France, China, Germany and Italy).

What is the process for exporting military items?

Any company wanting to export military or dual-use (that could have military or civilian use) goods to other nations must apply for a licence from the Government to do so.

These are referred to as controlled goods or items, and include not just physical goods but also software and technology.

A list of the controlled goods which require a licence for export are listed in the UK Strategic Export Control Lists (also known as the consolidated list).

The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) is responsible for processing licence applications. The unit sits within the Department for Business and Trade and draws together expertise from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence.

The ECJU assess licence applications against the Strategic Export Licencing Criteria. These reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law, and the risk that the goods might be used in the violation of human rights, for example torture, or for internal repression.

The legislative framework for the UK’s export controls is found in the Export Control Act 2002 and the Export Control Order 2008. A body of retained EU legislation and current EU legislation is also relevant.

The Government says its policy on export control is “not to frustrate or hamper the ability of companies to trade, but to make the world a safer place for us all by operating a clear, proportionate, and robust system of controls.”

Parliamentary oversight

Until early 2024, the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) scrutinised UK arms export policy and implementation. CAEC drew on the membership of four select committees: the Defence, Foreign Affairs, Business and Trade and International Development Committees.

In early 2023 CAEC called on the Government to support the establishment of a dedicated select committee on arms export controls.

However, in January 2024, the Business and Trade, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees announced they would no longer meet as CAEC. Rather, the Business and Trade Committee would take the lead scrutinising strategic export control policy, with other committees able to examine strategic exports as part of other work. The Defence Committee disagreed with this approach (PDF), arguing CAEC had “offer[ed] balanced scrutiny”.

Arms exports and human rights: An inherent conflict?

A perennial concern in this field is the inherent tension between supporting, encouraging and facilitating the export of arms and concerns about what the end user intends to do with them.

Notwithstanding the Government’s view that it “operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world” there are many who question the export of military equipment to countries with poor human rights records or who may be involved in conflict.

Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK group that calls for an end to the international arms trade, says “the majority of UK arms exports continue to go to highly autocratic regimes” and countries that are “actively engaged in armed conflict” and are not defending themselves from foreign invasion.

CAAT has twice taken the Government to court to obtain a Judicial Review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza in October 2023, several Members have called on the Government to suspend arms exports to Israel; Zarah Sultana (Lab) has introduced a Private Members Bill calling for the suspension of arms sales to countries “where it cannot be demonstrated that arms sold will not be used in violation of international law.”

The Government has resisted suggestions from the Committees on Arms Export Controls to introduce a post-shipment verification system to monitor the end-use of miliary equipment exported from the UK.

Sources on statistics

Commons Library briefing UK arms exports: statistics provides an overview of UK arms exports covering the three main sources of data on the subject. The paper looks at trends over time, the regions of the world where UK defence exports are going, and the type of goods that are being exported. 

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