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UK government accused of selling arms to dictators


The UK is now considering arming Libyan rebels.

Opposition fighters say they lack the firepower needed to fight off the forces of Colonel Gaddafi.

But the British government is already under pressure from its own members of parliament over previous weapons sales to Libya.

Human rights groups say Britain has been arming dictatorships for many years.

Security forces put down unrest in the Middle East with rubber bullets, tear gas and other irritant ammunition.

And they've got plenty - the UK was still selling arms to Libya just four months before Colonel Gaddafi turned them on his own people – with government ministers approving a deal for sniper rifles, bullets, and tear gas.

"There is a very strict set of guidelines that says if there’s a risk that human rights violations might take place, you don't sell arms. I would say, looking back through a number of credible sources, including an Amnesty International report, that arms supplied to Colonel Gaddafi could and would be used in the brutal crackdown on protesters," says Oliver Sprague from Amnesty International.

Arms exports are big business in the UK, valued at nearly $12 billion in 2009.

Now, a highly critical report by MPs exposes the scale of UK arms sales to some of the world's most brutal regimes.

The Libyan export licenses were some of the most valuable - according to the report, the UK sold nearly $350 million worth of arms there in the year leading up to September 2010. In the same year Egypt bought $27 million worth of small guns and electronic warfare equipment from the UK and Bahrain ordered more than $10 million of guns and crowd control agents.

Dozens of arms export licenses to the region have now been hastily revoked. But still, days into unrest in Cairo, UK Prime Minister David Cameron led a junket to the Middle East to flaunt the wares of British arms dealers.

"I cannot imagine who it was in the prime minister's office who said "Look, you have been arming those dictators t the teeth for decades, they've spent a certain amount of weaponry you gave them shooting in their own population. Now it is a really good time to sell them some more. I cannot imagine what damage it's done when people see the UK-made weaponry in the hands of people who are invading Bahrain and putting down its protesters at the moment," says John Rees from Stop the War coalition.

Report authors say the government "misjudged the risk" of selling arms to countries like Egypt and Bahrain - but many would go much further.

"One of the things that you've seen as a characteristic of British aid around the world over the last 10 years has been the provision of this highly militarized security sector… so it's exactly the opposite of trying to stimulate democracy – we are providing the means by which those countries' regimes can clamp down on democracy," says John Hilary from War on Want.

Since the violence began, more than a thousand people have been killed in Libya, and 26 killed and a thousand injured in Bahrain. Circumstantial evidence gathered by report authors suggests much of that damage was done with British weapons.

When the unrest started in the Middle East, the government scrambled to suspend arms export licenses. But this report is evidence that it closed the stable door long after the horse had bolted, when British weapons were probably already being used against civilians in Bahrain and Libya. The government still hasn’t ruled out arming the rebels in Libya - it remains to be seen whether these damning revelations will make them think twice.

The British foreign secretary has said that the UN resolution on Libya made it legal 'to give people aid in order to defend themselves '.

And the pressure on Western governments to arm the rebels is growing. With Colonel Gaddafi digging in his heels, a string of high-profile figures is speaking out in favor of the move:

Bill Clinton, for instance, said he 'would be inclined to do it'.

So far, the UK has officially offered telecommunications equipment to the rebels. But many suspect, help of a different kind may be on the way too.

Kaye Stearman from the Campaign against arms Trade says the military hardware sold by Britain was clearly designed to be used against civilians.

"The fact is these governments in the Middle East and North Africa who were sold weapons quite aggressively by Britain, I should say, were in fact undemocratic, dictatorial, abusive regimes. I think it was pretty well known that those weapons were likely to be used for internal repression. Of course, no one knew when it was likely to happen, but the fact is that they were buying weapons such as crowd control technology, tear gas, wall and door breaching equipment, which could only be used for internal repression. "


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