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Sat 23 October 2021

New research shows that the UK has approved export licenses of tear gas to regimes with concerning records on freedom of speech and assembly

The Government has authorised tear gas exports to a third of the world’s 195 countries, including one in five of the nations listed on the UK’s own human rights concern list.

Licences to 70 countries have been approved since 2008, with some exports listed as going to national militaries and police implicated in human rights concerns. Some of these state actors have used chemical irritants to quell pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East, to disrupt migrant protests in France and Kuwait, and to oppose striking garment workers in Bangladesh. 

Middle-eastern autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Oman have all been approved for multiple exports of tear gas. These countries have been widely criticised for strongly limiting freedom of speech and assembly.

Tear gas sales to six of the 30 nations on the UK Foreign Office’s own list of ‘Human Rights Priority Countries’ were rubber-stamped by the Government. These were Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka. However, due to the opaque UK export system, the value of these deals cannot be calculated or if the sales actually went through.

The legitimacy of even deploying tear gas against civilians remains questionable. Campaigners argue that its name is a misnomer and leads to the perception that it is relatively harmless. In reality, its effects tend to be longer and more severe than pepper spray.

Exposure can lead to life-long breathing problems, miscarriages, permanent blindness, eye-damage and dermatitis. There have also been the recorded deaths of elderly and medically vulnerable people following its use.

Sales of tear gas from UK companies must be approved by the UK Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU). The approval criteria states that certain countries will not be granted a licence for receiving specific weapons or equipment “if there is a clear risk the items might be used for internal repression”. 

On occasion, the Government has been responsive when faced with the repressive use of tear gas. In 2019, a ban was issued on exports of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong after UK-made gas canisters were shown to have been used against pro-democracy protesters.

But, despite previous revocations, the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has identified a number of countries, outlined below, that have been approved for tear gas exports despite the well-documented instances where the irritant was known to have been used in incidents of internal repression.

Crucially, a number of UK licence approvals came after such concerning uses of tear gas.

Reflecting on AOAV’s findings, Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament Fabian Hamilton MP said: “The UK Government must consider the impact that the sale of this equipment has on human rights around the world and MPs on the Committee on Arms Export Controls must be permitted to undertake appropriate scrutiny. It is vital that the Government is not granting licenses for arms sales to countries where there are legitimate concerns that equipment may be used for internal repression or in violation of international law.”


Bahrain

In 2011, UK-supplied tear gas was proven to have been used against peaceful protestors in Bahrain on what became known as Bloody Thursday. The scandal prompted a review of licences to the Gulf nation. 

A year later, a report by Physicians for Human Rights found that at least 13 people had died directly from the Bahrain authorities’ use of tear gas in just 12 months. 

The report said that Bahrain’s majority Shia community, which led the protests demanding reforms by the Sunni royal family, had been targeted. Areas with frequent tear gas use saw significant increases in miscarriages and respiratory problems, it added. 

A similar repression of anti-corruption protests occurred in early 2015. 

Despite this review, the UK permitted four more export licences for tear gas ammunition to Bahrain, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018. The latter three were all specifically for armed forces end use, although ostensibly for testing and evaluation purposes. 

A Foreign Office statement on human rights 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.”


Jordan

Tear gas was fired into crowds to break up anti-Government protests in 2012 which saw Jordanians take the rare step of speaking out against King Abdullah.

In 2020, the authorities attacked a group of 500 mostly female Sri Lankan migrant workers, who were pleading to be repatriated, with tear gas, forcing them to flee. 

In March this year, Jordanian police used tear gas to disperse anti-curfew protests. The effects of using a weapon that worsens long-term respiratory function during the Coronavirus pandemic is so far unknown.   

Despite the use of tear gas to repress anti-corruption protests in 2012, the UK approved three licenses for tear gas to Jordan for law enforcement agency use, between 2015 and 2018.

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Kuwait

In 2012, tear gas was used to break-up anti-Government protests after the Emir changed election rules to give pro-Government candidates an advantage.

Similarly, two years later, tear gas was used to break-up anti-corruption protests which demanded the release of an imprisoned opposition leader. The Associated Press reported that a prominent activist was wounded when a tear gas canister hit him in the head. 

In 2020, Kuwait police used tear gas to disperse Egyptian workers who were pressing embassy officials for repatriation.

The UK has authorised five licenses and refused one to Kuwait since 2015 for either military, law enforcement agency or unspecified end use. 


Oman

One of the most frequent buyers of UK-produced tear gas, Oman was criticised by human rights campaigners for deploying tear gas against peaceful protestors in May this year

Photographs released by the news outlet Declassified showed that some of the canisters used were made in the English city of Derby in 2012 by the firm PW Defence Ltd.

WesCom Group, which acquired PW Defence in February this year, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Twenty licences for tear gas have been issued by the UK Government since 2008, making Oman the fourth most frequent buyer of the irritant, behind France, Germany and Singapore. 

Oman is a key buyer of UK arms, and is listed as a priority market by the UK Government. One the largest UK arms deals in the past decade was the £2.5billion deal for 12 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft that were delivered to the country in 2018. 

British forces are permanently based at over 16 locations in Oman. The UK Ministry of Defence currently loans 285 personnel to 15 different militaries around the world, but nearly a third of the personnel are based in Oman. The supply of British forces to the sultanate dwarfs its nearest rivals – Saudi Arabia receives 33 British personnel in this way, Kuwait 30 and Brunei 27.


United Arab Emirates

The wealthy federation of states made one of the largest single purchases of tear gas and crowd control ammunition in 2014, worth £6.1million. Overall, it has been approved for five licences since 2012. 

Whilst protests are extremely rare, meaning the use of tear gas has been limited, UAE authorities have been repeatedly recorded detaining opposition leaders, arbitrarily detaining dissidents and tolerating violence against women, such as so-called honour killings.


Bangladesh

In 2018, Bangladeshi police fired tear gas as thousands of students protested for safer roads. The US Embassy at the time condemned the repressive actions, saying in a statement that “nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence over the weekend against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights in supporting a safer Bangladesh”.

The following year, police in Dhaka used tear gas to disperse garment factory workers, primarily women, who were campaigning for higher wages. Clashes with police led to one worker being killed and dozens injured. That same year, the UK approved £40,761 worth of tear gas ammunition for “military end use” in Bangladesh. 

A UK Foreign Office statement on human rights from 2020 said: “According to a local human rights groups, there were at least 158 extrajudicial killings in the first six months of 2020. Media freedom continued to be eroded, with at least 38 journalists and more than 400 other people, including health professionals and people critical of the Government’s handling of COVID-19, detained under the Digital Security Act.”


France 

Across the Channel, France has been the most frequent purchaser of British tear gas in recent years, with 21 licences approved since 2015 for either military, law enforcement, or non-specified end users.

The use of crowd control techniques by French police has been heavily criticised. The human rights organisation Amnesty International identified seven separate incidents of concern in France between 2018 and 2020, involving the deployment of tear gas on migrants, climate change protestors, and excessive amounts being used on peaceful protestors in Lyon who were opposing the proposed global security bill. 


Taking Action

In a recent letter, Control Arms – a collective of organisations advocating for a more transparent arms trade of which AOAV is part of – called on the Committee on Arms Export Controls in Parliament to provide “a detailed explanation of how the Government manages the export control process for prospective and ongoing arms deliveries to countries it identifies as Human Rights Priority Countries”.

The Department for International Trade has repeatedly described its licencing system as “one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world”. It added that “the Government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria”.

Action on Armed Violence’s executive director, Iain Overton, said: “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. So, when we are exhorted to ‘Build Britain Back Better’, should this involve not selling armaments that seem only to make things worse?”

Action on Armed Violence would like to thank the Campaign Against the Arms Trade for its online resources that have made cross-checking its findings significantly easier. 

Additional research by Anna Crossland

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