The UK is now the second-biggest arms dealer in the world, government figures show – with most of the weapons fuelling deadly conflicts in the Middle East.
The news comes as MPs decide whether to call for a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in light of allegations of indiscriminate bombing by the Saudi-led coalition during the 18-month-old Yemen civil war.
But such a move would “infuriate Riyadh, unnerve arms manufacturers and embarrass the Conservative government”, says The Guardian.
What do the statistics show?
A joint analysis conducted by The Independent and the Campaign Against Arms Trade found £7.9bn worth of arms was sold to countries on the human rights priority list, which is maintained by the Foreign Office and includes countries judged by the FCO to have “the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations” of which Saudi Arabia is one of them.
This summer, UK Trade and Investment, a government body that promotes British exports abroad, boasted: “The UK is one of the world’s most successful defence exporters, averaging second place in the global rankings on a rolling ten-year basis.”
According to the body, the UK has, on average, sold more arms than Russia, China or France over the last 10 years. “Only the United States is a bigger exporter,” says The Independent.
What about Yemen?
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has defended UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen is not “in clear breach” of international humanitarian law.
But human rights activists argue that breaches occurred when the Saudi-led coalition bombed several international hospitals run by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), schools and wedding parties.
MSF has now withdrawn staff from six medical facilities in the northwest of Yemen after the air strikes – and human rights groups say there is evidence civilian targets are being deliberately hit.
What will happen next?
Andrew Smith, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, warns that the dependence of British exporters on unsavoury regimes could make the UK less likely to intervene against human rights violators.
“These terrible figures expose the hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy,” he said. “The government is always telling us that it acts to promote human rights and democracy, but it is arming and supporting some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”
But Desmond Swayne, a former minister at the Department for International Development, told Channel 4 News that the UK is not party to the war in Yemen and will “continue to assess the situation appropriately”.