Human rights abuses

The UK arms repressive regimes around the world, contributing to human rights abuses and harming democratic progress

Last updated 26 September 2020

Arming repressive regimes

The arms trade exists to provide weapons to any buyer who can pay for them. As long as they have the money, what the buyers do with the arms does not matter to the seller.

Human rights abuses are facilitated by arms sales in four main ways:

  • The arms can be used to carry out the abuse directly.
  • The arms sales increase the military authority of governments and their ability to intimidate or abuse.
  • A heavily armed government can help instil fear in a population, while building up a sense of a nation under threat, increasing support for the government.
  • International arms sales convey a message of approval and acceptance by foreign governments.

The international democracy and human rights NGO Freedom House produces annual ratings for each country based on their level of political rights and respect for civil liberties. Out of 48 countries rated by Freedom House in 2020 as “Not Free”, the UK sold arms to 35 of them in 2019, with 15 receiving at least £1 million worth of licences.

The UK government’s 2018 Human Rights and Democracy report also identified 30 Human Rights Priority Countries, where human rights are a concern. This included several countries not on the Freedom House list, but where there are nonetheless severe human rights abuses occurring. Four of these countries also received at least £1 million of arms export licences from the UK in 2019. (See graph below).

Chart with text showing country names and monetary values besides coloured circles of proportionate size. Saudi Arabia £638m. Qatar £389 m. Bangladesh £117 m. UAE £110m. Turkey £66 m. China £44 m. Oman £40 m. Israel £27 m. Egypt £8.1 m. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Brunei, Colombia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Rwanda, Uganda, Vietnam £26.1 m.

Value of standard arms export licences issued by the UK to countries with poor human rights records in 2019. Red denotes countries rated “Not Free” by Freedom House. Orange denotes other countries classed as “human rights priority countries” by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.


Key statistics


UK arms customers rated "Not Free", 2019

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£1.3 billion

Value of UK arms licences to countries found by Freedom House to be "Not Free"

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UK arms fuel conflict and repression

Storm Shadow missile parts found in Yemen

Photo by Hussain Albukhaiti on Twitter

UK arms used in Yemen

The UK government admits that Saudi Arabia has used UK weapons, made by companies around the UK, in its attacks on Yemen.

Image of a woman human rights campaigner waving Bahraini flag (behind her)


Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf. It has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for more than 200 years. The UK has a long history of colonial intervention in Bahrain, which declared its independence in 1971.

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

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