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UK keeps exporting tear gas to Mideast's authoritarian regimes

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Protesters in Bahrain dodge tear gas canisters amid clashes with the police during an anti-Israel rally. (Photo by AFP)

The UK government has approved tear gas exports to numerous authoritarian Middle East regimes, including in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman, over the past decade, new research finds.

According to survey results released by British NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), since 2008, the British government has approved arms export licenses to 70 countries, despite the fact that several of these states are on its own human rights priority list.

“There is much talk about a post-Brexit Global Britain, but such global trade is also in weapons that have been used in repressing and undermining democratic protest,” said AOAV’s Executive Director, Iain Overton.

“So, when we are exhorted to Build Britain Back Better, should this involve not selling armaments that seem only to make things worse?” he asked.

According to the legal and regulatory framework for UK arms exports, a license should not be granted “if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

However, several of the UK export approvals came in the wake of documented misuse of tear gas by the authoritarian states in the Middle East.

In the case of Bahrain, it emerged in 2011 that UK-supplied tear gas had been used against peaceful demonstrations in the Persian Gulf island, during what is known as Bloody Thursday. However, ignoring the repressions, the UK government authorized four more licenses for tear gas ammunition to Bahrain, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018.

“[The UK government's] inaction on sales to the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman” is so hard to be defended, said Murray Jones, the author of the AOAV report.

The single largest approved export to any Middle Eastern country in the AOAV data is a 2014 deal for tear gas and “crowd control ammunition” to the UAE worth more than £6 million.

Kuwait and Jordan, and Oman have also used UK-provided tear gas for repression of anti-government protests repeatedly.

Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament Fabian Hamilton MP said: “The UK Government must consider the impact that the sale of this equipment has on human rights around the world, and MPs on the Committee on Arms Export Controls must be permitted to undertake appropriate scrutiny.”

“It is vital that the government is not granting licenses for arms sales to countries where there are legitimate concerns that equipment may be used for internal repression or in violation of international law,” he added.

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