Sri Lanka's Killing Fields displays UK complicity in arms sales

15 June 2011

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has called for a government embargo on arms sales to Sri Lanka and an examination of its past record on arms exports, especially during the period of "ceasefire" between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 2005 to 2008. During these four years the UK is recorded as having approved arms export licenses worth a total of £18 million.

In 2005, the first year of the ceasefire, the UK approved arms exports of £4 million to Sri Lanka. In 2006, this rose to £8.5 million, falling to £1 million in 2007, and rising again to £4.5 million in 2008. The weapons exported during this period included armoured vehicles, machine gun components and semiautomatic pistols. The UK continues to licence arms sales to Sri Lanka. In 2009, the UK licensed arms sales worth £700,000 and in 2010, around £1 million.

Watch Sri Lanka's Killing Fields on 4OD
Watch Sri Lanka's Killing Fields on 4OD

Last night, Tuesday 14 June, Channel 4 screened Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, a film which graphically depicted scenes of summary executions, rape, torture and bombing of hospitals and sheltering civilians in April-May 2009. In August 2009, the cross-party Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) said that it could not guarantee that UK weapons were not used during the onslaught.

The UK arms exports were heavily criticised by CAEC which said the UK should review its policy on arms sales to Sri Lanka. The then chairman of CAEC, Roger Berry, said that the UK "must assess more carefully the risk that UK arms exports might be used by those countries in the future in a way that breaches our licensing criteria." That criteria includes not exporting arms to countries in conflict or who are likely to use arms in internal repression.

Roger Berry further called for a review of all existing licences and recommended that the government assess what UK weapons were used by the Sri Lankan military against the LTTE. To CAAT's knowledge this recommendation has not been adopted.

In 2009, the then Labour government revoked eight arms export licenses to Sri Lanka, including licences for components for aircraft military telecommunications equipment, components for military communications equipment and components for military parachutes.

Kaye Stearman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said:

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields has cast a spotlight on the slaughter of 2009. David Cameron and the UK government are calling on the Sri Lankan government to investigate the atrocities but we also need a proper investigation of the UK government's own complicity in selling arms to Sri Lanka, despite knowing how they were likely to be used. UK arms sales confer support and legitimacy on the Sri Lankan government, just as they do on Middle East governments who use UK arms against their own people.

ENDS

For further information or an interview please contact CAAT's Media Coordinator, Kaye Stearman on 020 7281 0297 or mobile 07990 673 232 or email media(at)caat·org·uk.

NOTES

  1. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) works for the reduction and ultimate abolition of the international arms trade. Around 80% of CAAT's income is raised from individual supporters.
  2. The arms export licensing process is carried out by the Export Controls Organisation based in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, with input from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), with reports published quarterly by the FCO. The report for the fourth quarter of 2010 was published in the week of 18 April 2011.
  3. The government's arms sales promotion unit is UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO). UKTI now employs 160 civil servants to sell arms, which represent only 1.5% of exports. There have been meetings between UKTI/DSO staff and Sri Lankan officials in last two years.
  4. The 2009 CAEC report, section on Sri Lanka, contained the following statement: The Minister for Business and Regulatory Reform confirmed that the Sri Lankan armed forces have been supplied with UK military communications for a number of years. However, again due to lack of information, he indicated that it was not "possible to confirm the extent to which communications equipment was used in the conflict, so we cannot state categorically that it was not". He concluded that due to this uncertainty and the escalation of the conflict, the licence for military communications equipment was refused and all extant licences of a similar nature were revoked.
  5. Members of the government have aggressively promoted arms exports. Peter Luff, Defence Equipment Minister, has said: "There will be a very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to (arms sales). There is a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this Government." Gerald Howarth, International Security Strategy Minister, said in November 2010: "This government has been very clear from the outset and so have I: we are proud to support the biggest defence exports drive in decades." David Cameron was accompanied on his visit to the Middle East in February by the representatives of eight arms companies but insisted the UK "has nothing to be ashamed of."
  6. Foreign Officer Minister Alistair Burt visited Sri Lanka in April. During his two-day visit he met with the Secretary of Defence, together with other politicial figures. After watching the Channel 4 documentary on 15 June, he urged Sri Lanka to initiate an "independent, thorough and credible investigation" into allegations of war crimes.
  7. The annual report of the parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls published on 5 April 2011 was highly critical of the government's arms export policy and stated that successive governments had "misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression." It also posed the question of how the government: "intends to reconcile the potential conflict of interest between increased emphasis on promoting arms exports with the staunch upholding of human rights."
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