UK arms sales to Sri Lanka continue, despite new evidence of atrocities

15 March 2012

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has challenged the government to explain why it continues to licence weapons for export to Sri Lanka, as a Channel 4 documentary reveals further evidence of war crimes by the Sri Lankan military.

Since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, the UK has licensed military and dual use equipment for export to Sri Lanka to the value of over £3 million - with arms sales comprising over £2 million of the total.

On Wednesday 14 March, Channel 4 screened Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, containing graphic scenes of deliberate heavy shelling of civilians and a hospital, denial of food aid to civilians and targeted summary executions, including the 12-year-old son of the Tamil Tiger leader.

Between May and December 2009, the UK licensed military and dual use exports worth £700,000, of which £580,000 were military, and in 2010, just under £1 million, of which £185,000 were military. In the first nine months of 2011 (the latest date for which figures are available), the value reached almost £1.5 million, of which over £1.3 million were military.

Some of the most high-value items licensed were armoured military vehicles. For example, in August 2009, a few months after the end of the fighting, the UK approved a licence valued at £175,000 for "all wheel vehicles with ballistic protection" followed by a licence for similar vehicles in November, this time worth £300,000. This was surpassed in July 2011 when a licence was approved for £500,000 for the same military vehicles.

Other high-value items have involved cryptography. In April 2011 the UK approved export licences for "equipment employing cryptography" of £166,000. In the same month, a licence was issued for export of "decoying countermeasure equipment and components", coming under the heading of "grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures", totalling £412,800. In June 2011, there were approvals for body armour and components for body armour valued at £96,000.

Kaye Stearman, spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade, said:

The Arab Spring has bought world attention to the repression practiced by governments against their own people. "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished" brings a similar focus on the brutality exercised by the government of Sri Lanka against opposing forces and thousands of helpless civilians trapped in the warzone. We need to ask why the UK government continues to licence arms for export to Sri Lanka, given their long and proven knowledge of the situation.


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


  1. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) works for the reduction and ultimate abolition of the international arms trade.The arms business has a devastating impact on human rights and society and damages economic development. Large-scale military procurement and arms exports only reinforce a militaristic approach to international problems. Around 75% of CAAT's income is raised from individual supporters.
  2. In 2005, the first year of the ceasefire, the UK approved military and dual use exports of £4.5 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.
  3. The data for arms export licences for Sri Lanka can be found via CAAT's export licence app here.The full app can be accessed here.
  4. In August 2009 the cross-party Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) said that it could not guarantee that UK were not used during the Sri Lankan military onslaught of April-May 2009. CAEC 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 LTTE. To CAAT's knowledge this recommendation has not been adopted.
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