What is the Current Framework Behind Military Exports Regulation in the UK?

At the panel discussion on the global defence industry we tried to understand the framework behind the regulation of military export licenses in the United Kingdom. Professor Trevor Taylor, who is currently working at the Defence Management at the Royal United Services Institute, mainly spoke about the current structure of military export regulations. As he explained, the United Kingdom operates under the European code conduct – or at least in theory. This conduct consists mainly of eight criteria that all the members of the European Union – even the United Kingdom – are required to follow. Exports licence should be refused to a country if:

  1. Members states of the European Union agreed to put sanctions on the country in question.
  2. The country doesn’t respect human rights.
  3. Exports would provoke or prolong armed conflicts in the country in question.
  4. There is a risk that the intended recipient would use the equipment in a way that would damage regional peace, security and stability.
  5. The recipient country is hostile to a Member state.
  6. The buyer country harbour terrorists or more generally doesn’t comply with international law.
  7. There is a risk that arms will be diverted or re-exported under undesirable conditions.
  8. The recipient country hasn’t the economic resources to afford it.

There’s no need to be an expert on the matter to figure out that a large number of these points are rarely respected. For instance, the UK government announced in 2014 that more than 3,000 export licences for weapons worth £12bn were issued to 28 countries described by the Foreign Office as “countries of human rights concern”.

However, as Professor Taylor highlighted, some of these criterion are quite tricky to implement. The third one, for instance, is difficult to follow because of the challenges of assessing whether arms export will prolong or reduce an armed conflict. This dilemma is visible when we look for example at the current debate about providing arms to Ukrainian troops. The first criterion seems quite problematic as well because of the unintended consequences that sanctions can create. If we think of the example of the South African arms embargoes, it only contributed in the creation their own defence industry. Professor Taylor also touched upon the economic advantages of military exports. In fact, these amounted to £10 billion only in 2014 in the UK. Exports certainly represent an important part of the economy; however it seems that morality has no place in the current framework of arms exports since 67% of these exports were directed to the Middle East, mainly to Saudi Arabia despite its gross human right abuses. Are arms exports to repressive states really that vital for UK’s economy? But more importantly, should ethical concerns be integrated in military exports policies?

While Professor Trevor touched on the most visible aspects of the framework of military exports in the UK, Professor Louth – Director for Defence, Industries and Society at the Royal United Services Institute – discussed the less-known one such as the Defence Growth Partnership created in 2012. Less-know because no one in the lecture theatre knew about its existence and neither the wider public because of the complete absence of media coverage. The DGP basically consists in an investment of £30 million in the UK defence industry, as part of a long-term economic plan for economic recovery. Will this policy have a major impact in the UK defence industry and challenge the current framework of military exports regulation?

Is this a reasonable policy for the defence industry?

Professor Taylor and Professor Louth tried to elucidate the current framework behind military exports regulation in the UK. If you think that the current framework is not enough efficient or could be improved, come to the roundtable on the 24th of February to give voice to your policy recommendation or write to editor@kingsthinktank.com if you want to publish your policy in our journal, The Spectrum.

Fosca D’Incau

Defence and Diplomacy Editor

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