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British Arms Sales Aiding Repression in Chile

Steve Shaw reports on the UK Government’s decision to continue to sell millions of pounds in arms and crowd-control equipment to Chile, where police are cracking down on protests against inequality and corruption.

Unrest in Santiago, Chile, in November 2019
British Arms Sales Aiding Repression in Chile

Steve Shaw reports on the UK Government’s decision to continue to sell millions of pounds in arms and crowd-control equipment to Chile, where police are cracking down on protests against inequality and corruption.

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In early February, mourners came together to remember the life of 37-year-old Jorge Mora – a man whose life ended on 28 January, hours after a police truck slammed into him outside a football stadium.

The funeral in Chile’s capital city of Santiago was supposed to be a peaceful affair for Mora’s family and friends, as well as the many football supporters who came to pay their respects. But, when grief turned to anger and demonstrations broke out, the peace was shattered. 

Protestors and mourners were soon fleeing stinging tear gas fired off by riot police who showed little care for where and who they aimed at. Many escaped to safety, but one was not so lucky – a tear gas canister slammed into the the head of 24-year-old Ariel Moreno. The impact was so devastating that he was dead two days later.

These events, that led to two more names being added to the list of the dead that has grown to more than 30 since protests began, represent just a snapshot of the violence that has torn through Chile since last October. Ordinary citizens have been rising up to take on the wealthy and the powerful who have helped create a society rife with inequality rooted in the 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected President Salvador Allende.

The demonstrations began when the Chilean Government announced that it would increase the cost of public transport and, since then, thousands of people have been seriously inured by security forces using non-lethal weapons such as tear gas launchers and rubber bullets. Of the more than 5,000 injured, the United Nations said an “alarmingly high number” had injuries to their eyes or faces, indicating a “strong basis to believe that ‘less-lethal weapons’ have been used improperly and indiscriminately, against international principles on minimising the risk of injury”.

A UN report adds that, while eye injuries were mainly the result of shotgun pellets, some cases were “due to the use of chemical irritants, in particular tear gas and, in some instances, from impacts from tear gas canisters”.

In spite of this, Chile remains one the UK’s core markets for arms sales and the Government has continued to sell millions of pounds in arms and crowd-control equipment to the country. The Department for International Trade has said that the sales would not take place if there was evidence of internal repression, despite the UN stating three months ago that international human rights norms had been violated by both police and army personnel. The UN has also called for prosecutions.

Meanwhile, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, has said that “the intention of the Chilean security forces is clear: to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest”.

Of the £164 million worth of arms licensed to Chile since 2008, 50% have been in the last 12 months. While not all have been related to equipment that would be used by security forces, an Open Individual Export Licence was issued on 12 June 2018, which allows a company to sell “smoke canisters”, “smoke/pyrotechnic ammunition”, “tear gas/riot control agents”, “training CS hand grenades” and “training tear gas/irritant ammunition”.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) explained that an open licence means that the company – which Byline Times has been unable to verify – can export unlimited amounts of these items for a period of up to five years. It also does not need to report how much has been delivered. Other items exported in recent months include body armour, small arms ammunition and weapons sights.

Byline Times asked the Department for International Trade whether any assessment has been undertaken to verify whether this equipment has been used in human rights abuses. A spokesman for the department said: “The Government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria, including where we assess there is a clear risk that they might be used for internal repression.”

Grace Livingstone, a lecturer at Cambridge University and author of Britain and the Dictatorships of Argentina and Chile, 1973-82, said: “The UN has condemned the Chilean police and army personnel for widespread human rights abuses against protestors. It cites multiple cases of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence against people held in detention. It says over 5,000 people have been injured and an ‘alarmingly high number’ of protestors have injuries to their eyes and face, suggesting that less-lethal weapons have been used ‘improperly and indiscriminately’.

“Several protestors have been injured by shotgun pellets or tear-gas canisters. In this context, the United Kingdom should clearly not be selling arms to the Chilean police or armed forces. It should immediately stop approving the sales of weapons that could be used for internal repression. The UK ended exports of tear gas and smoke grenades to Hong Kong after evidence showed that they were being used against protestors in Hong Kong. Why has it not taken the same action on Chile?

“Britain has a murky history of selling weapons to the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile, which was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of thousands of people. It should not make the same mistake again.”

Representatives from the Chilean Government were also invited to the ‘Security and Policing 2020 Arms Fair’ hosted by the UK Home Office in Farnborough. The event, which took place between 3 and 5 March, allows buyers to purchase technology for spying and surveillance – which the CAAT says can be used for “internal repression”.

Others invited by the Department for International Trade’s Defence and Security Organisation – a civil service trade body that exists to promote arms exports – include Bahrain, Israel, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, many of which have been accused of human rights abuses and torture.

The sellers include BAE Systems, Leonardo and Thales, as well as surveillance companies such as the NSO Group, which makes spyware accused of having links to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the hacking of a phone belonging to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. In response to accusations about Mr Bezos, the company said it “can say unequivocally that our technology was not used in this instance”.

Andrew Smith of the CAAT said: “By promoting spyware and other repressive equipment to human rights abusing regimes and dictatorships, the UK is aiding and supporting their abuses. In many cases, the companies that are profiting from walls, fences and militarised borders are the same ones that are fuelling the wars that are causing displacement.”

Carole Concha Bell, a member of the Chile Solidarity Network, told Byline Times: “As A Chilean, daughter of exiles from the Pinochet era, living in the UK it is disappointing to know that the UK has a license to export crowd control weapons to Chile, particularly when they are being used within the context of brutal, murderous repression, against a people sick of the hold that the Pinochet constitution still has on their lives. 

“It is shameful to continue supplying this equipment to a police force that only deals in violence, rape and torture. It doesn’t come as a huge shock when remembering that BAE gave Pinochet £1 million in 2005 – a heinous dictator held in the UK for 18 months, for extreme human rights atrocities.

“[Foreign Secretary] Dominic Raab spoke of applying the Magnitsky Law at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2019, but this country has amnesia when it comes to putting profit over people. Chile Solidarity Network will be working hard to raise awareness of the gross human rights violations taking place in Chile and we hope to take our message to the UK Government that it’s not okay to do business with repressive states.”

Chilean students and residents delivered a letter to the UK Foreign Office earlier this year to urge the Government to end the exports.

A spokesman for the department wrote back this week: “The UK Government confirms that we are monitoring the situation in Chile and that our embassy in Santiago has talked with representatives of the Chilean Government and expressed concerns about allegations of human rights abuses by members of the security forces. The UK Government notes that the Chilean Government invited the UN Human Rights Commissioner and Human Rights Watch to send investigatory teams and has since accepted the recommendations of both reports. Our ambassador was told by a senior Chilean official that the Government is taking a twin approach: ensuring justice for the victims of human rights abuses so far, and preventing more violations in future.”

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