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 export of these items is controlled to ensure the Government knows what is being exported, where it is being exported to and for whom.

A perennial issue is the inherent tension between promoting arms sales whilst also voicing concerns about the end user, specially if there are concerns about a country’s human rights record. UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for example remain highly controversial. 

What controls are in place?

The export control system is made up of several elements. International bodies, to which the UK belongs, provide specialist advice in identifying items that need to be controlled. These items are added to the applicable UK or EU secondary legislation (statutory instruments or regulations) and collated in the UK Strategic Export Control List, more commonly known as the Consolidated List.

Applications to export items on the list are assessed against eight criteria, found in the 2008 EU Common Position and the UK national criteria. In the UK, these criteria are referred to as the Consolidated Criteria. The eight criteria require the Government to, among other things, respect international obligations and commitments and consider the risk of an item being used for internal repression. 

How are licenses granted?

The Department for International Trade is the licensing authority for strategic exports from the UK. The Export Control Organisation is responsible for issuing licenses. The Export Control Joint Unit brings together expertise from the DIT, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence who assess license applications against the Common Criteria.

Different departments are responsible for leading on different criteria but ultimately the Secretary of State for International Trade is responsible for export controls. A range of difference licenses are available.

Who can impose arms embargoes?

Arms embargoes may be applied by the United Nations, by the European Union or, less commonly, by the OSCE.

A Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill has passed all its Commons stages and will now be returned to the House of Lords, a stage known as ping pong.

Scrutiny of arms export controls

The Government submits annual reports on the controls imposed on strategic exports to Parliament. The Committees on Arms Export Controls was reformed after the 2017 election. This draws together four select committees – international trade, foreign affairs, international development and defence – to scrutinise UK arms export controls and policy.

Externally a number of organisations pay close attention to UK arms export licensing decisions. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade actively lobby Members about UK arms exports. 

How might Brexit change the legal and regulatory framework?

The implications of Brexit for arms export controls are not yet clear and there is limited literature on this subject.

There is broad acceptance that legislative changes will be needed. Concerns about arms exports post-Brexit tend to coalesce around sanctions (arms embargoes), dual-use technology, and continued participation in information exchange mechanisms. A number of bodies are calling on the Government to formally align with the EU Common Position once it leaves the EU, fearing a divergence of agreed criteria in the long-term.

Judicial Review update August 2019

This paper was written in May 2018 and does not reflect the June 2019 Court of Appeal decision regarding arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A separate Library briefing paper ‘UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia: Q&A‘ discusses the Court’s decision and the Government’s response.

This paper will be updated in due course.

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