Britain has consistently said that it keeps all arms exports under close scrutiny and that licensing is made on a case-by-case basis. But now a freedom of information request reveals that for the last five years, Britain has been selling Storm Shadow and Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Paveway IV bombs to the Saudis under what are known as Open Individual Export Licences (OIELs), which the government says are for the export of “less sensitive goods”.
Unlike specific licences, OIELs allow an unlimited number of consignments over a fixed period, typically between three and five years. There is no obligation to publish the total value of the licence after it expires. “Open licences remove the need for the seller to obtain prior approval for each export,” said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade, which submitted the FOI. “It’s an opaque system which has been used to shift extremely sensitive weaponry to the Saudi regime.”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which uses open sources to measure the quantities of arms exported each year, estimates that, since 2013, around 100 British-made Storm Shadow missiles worth £80m, 2,400 Paveway IV bombs worth £150m, and 1,000 Brimstone missiles worth £100m have been sold to Saudi Arabia.
“Open licences issued in the years before Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war are still being used for the export of hundreds of millions of pounds of bombs today. If it were not for this Observer report neither parliament nor the committee tasked with scrutinising arms exports, on which I sit, would have any idea that these weapons are being sent,” said Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the Commons committee on arms export controls. …
The government insists that it operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world with all export licence applications assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.
But this claim was challenged by the arms trade campaigner, Smith. “By the government’s own admission it is trying to encourage more companies to use this type of licence,” he said. “If permission is not needed before a specific export of missiles or bombs takes place, then how can it claim to operate a case-by-case system?”