LONDON (Middle East Eye) -- The British government has authorized exports of tear gas to numerous authoritarian states in the Middle East over the past decade, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman, new research reveals, despite several of the countries being on its own human rights priority list.
Since 2008, the British government has approved licenses for tear gas to 70 countries, according to data compiled by British NGO Action On Armed Violence (AOAV).
Six of them - Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka - are listed as “Human Rights Priority Countries” by the UK foreign office.
Details of the deals are scarce. The UK export system gives little information on the value of each sale, whether they actually go through, and when they are delivered.
But the data do show that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman have all been approved for multiple exports of tear gas, despite documented examples of it being used for internal repression, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both been approved once for such shipments.
“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?”
Britain’s Department for International Trade describes its licensing system as “one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world”.
“The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licenses in accordance with strict licensing criteria,” it said, a line repeated when queries are made about the human rights implications of weapons sales.
A group known as the UK Export Control Joint Unit, whose reports formed the basis of the AOAV research, approves tear gas exports from UK companies. A license should not be granted, its approval criteria reads, “if there is a clear risk the data-x-items might be used for internal repression”.
In 2019, when it was proven that UK-made gas canisters had been used to quell demonstrations in Hong Kong, the UK issued a ban on exports of “crowd control equipment” to the Chinese administrative region.
But many Middle Eastern recipients of UK tear gas, which can cause numerous grave health side effects, including blindness and even death, have a history of using the chemical irritant to violently clamp down on protests, and data show export requests are rarely refused.
What’s more, several of the UK export approvals came after documented misuse of tear gas.
“The case of Hong Kong shows that they do have the mechanisms to prevent British-made weapons being used for internal repression,” Murray Jones, the author of the AOAV report, said. “So [the UK government’s] inaction on sales to the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman becomes even harder to defend.”
The single largest approved export to any Middle Eastern country in the data is a 2014 deal for tear gas and “crowd control ammunition” to the UAE worth £6,124,000. It is one of five licenses approved to the Persian Gulf kingdom since 2012.
In 2011, the UK reviewed its licenses to Bahrain, when it emerged that UK-supplied tear gas had been used against peaceful demonstrations in the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, during what is known as Bloody Thursday.
A report published the following year found that in a 12 month period at least 13 people had died as a direct result of the Bahrain authorities’ use of tear gas.
The report, written by Physicians for Human Rights, found that areas regularly tear-gassed had seen large increases in miscarriages and respiratory problems.
Despite the review, Britain approved four more licenses for tear gas ammunition to Bahrain, in 2013, 2014, 2015 - when authorities again used tear gas on civilians to repress anti-corruption protests - and 2018.
A foreign office statement on human rights in Bahrain last year stated: “Challenges around freedom of expression, lack of media diversity, and a culture of self-censorship also persisted, with Bahrain dropping to 169 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.”