Open? The UK’s secret arms sales

The UK's secretive open licence system obscures the true level of the UK arms trade, and eases arms sales to repressive regimes and countries in conflict.

What is the total value of the UK arms trade? How much profit does the UK make selling weapons around the world each year to different countries? The UK government claims to have the most ‘rigorous and robust’ arms export controls in the world, but the truth is, it doesn’t record enough information on arms sales to answer even these basic questions.

This report explains the complex UK export licencing system, and the role of “Open licences” which, despite the name, are secretive and limit transparency and accountability. It sets out the problems created by the open licencing system, and makes recommendations for change.

Facilitating and obscuring the arms trade

The UK Government claims to be a leader in transparency in arms exports, pointing to the detailed information it releases regarding export licences issued, refused, and revoked. However, significant gaps remain in this information. For example, there is no information on the precise equipment that is exported, or the companies to which the licences are issued.

One of the biggest gaps is created by the use of Open Licences, which give permission for unlimited exports of specified equipment to the destination countries covered by the licence, over a long period of time or even indefinitely. These licences do not have any financial value or quantities attached, meaning that published values for UK arms exports give only a partial picture of the trade.

In fact, CAAT’s research suggests that a majority of the arms exports licensed by the UK government are supplied via Open licences.

As well as creating a yawning gap in transparency of the UK arms trade, the Open Licencing system:

  • Make arms exports considerably easier, including to highly repressive
    regimes and countries in conflict
  • Make it easier for the government to create an illusion of restraint by halting new
    licences, while allowing previous long-lasting open licences to remain in place

What is CAAT calling for?

CAAT and its supporters want to see a world without arms sales, where the UK does not profit from the sale of weapons that fuel conflict and repression. In principle, we would like to see an end to the open license system for exports of military equipment. Short of this, we call for:

  • Clear and transparent reporting of arms exports, including actual deliveries of arms, across all types of licences, single and open.
  • No open licenses for the export of military equipment to countries in conflict or with poor human rights records.
  • All existing licences – especially open licenses – to be suspended or revoked if conflict or human rights abuses occur, not just stopping new licences.

Download the report.

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