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Police in Hong Kong are brutally repressing democracy – and Britain is arming them | Andrew Smith | Opinion


This weekend there was a further intensification of police violence against campaigners in Hong Kong. Over the past two months, police officers have attacked pro-democracy protesters using teargas, CS grenades, batons and small arms. More than 1,000 rounds of tear gas and 160 rubber bullets have been used since June, with human rights monitors accusing the authorities of beating protesters and applying “excessive and unnecessary force”.

It is likely that many of the weapons being used were made in the UK: the Omega Research Foundation has published photos of UK-made CS grenades deployed by Hong Kong police against crowds. Since 2015, the UK government has licensed £8.6m worth of arms to the Hong Kong administration. This includes licences for teargas, anti-riot shields, pyrotechnic ammunition, spying technology and other equipment that could be used in the crackdown.

It’s not the first time UK-made teargas has been used by the Hong Kong authorities: it was also used against the “umbrella movement” in 2014. At the time, the UK said it would reconsider its policies in light of the attacks. But as soon as the violence was out of the headlines it was back to business as usual. Within months, the arms sales had begun again.

UK export rules state that arms export licences should not be issued where there is a clear risk of the weapons being used for internal repression. Yet all of the most recent exports had been licensed by the UK government despite the previous use of teargas against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong.

That is why many in Hong Kong and the UK had trouble taking seriously the claim in June of Jeremy Hunt, then foreign secretary, that no more sales would be allowed without a guarantee that they would not be used for repression. These weapons can only be used for repression – they have no other purpose.

In any case, Hunt’s pledge was too little, too late. The lifespan of a weapon is often far longer than that of the political situation it is sold into. The Hong Kong police will likely have large stockpiles of UK-made arms ready to be used – and indeed, images of rubber smoke grenades with the markings of UK companies continue to emerge.

Hunt’s words were undermined further when it was revealed that the Hong Kong military is among the delegations invited to the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in London next month.

DSEI is one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. It brings international arms companies to the London Docklands to meet with representatives from the world’s most authoritarian despots and dictatorships. By inviting the Hong Kong authorities, the UK is sending the message that its history of violence and repression can be overlooked and that the rights of people in Hong Kong are less important than securing arms sales.

The full guest list reads like a roll call of human rights-abusing regimes, with military delegations from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines and Egypt joining their Hong Kong counterparts. The delegations will be given the red-carpet treatment and greeted by civil servants. Arms companies will try to entice them with the latest hi-tech weaponry and killing machines.

Unfortunately there is nothing new in this approach. For decades, the British government – be it Conservative, Labour or coalition – has prioritised the interests of arms companies over human rights. And the signs are that it will only get worse under Boris Johnson.

With the uncertainty of Brexit on the horizon, it is likely that the government will do all it can to boost UK manufacturing by promoting arms sales and selling repression around the world. Figures from the Department for International Trade show that 2018 was a bumper year for the UK arms industry, with £14bn worth of arms exports, a marked increase on 2017. Over the past year, the UK has been the world’s second biggest arms exporter, behind the US.

There is no doubt that Johnson will use the same rhetoric about human rights and democracy as his predecessors. But it will ring hollow to people who are campaigning against the regimes being armed and supported by Downing Street. Whether it is in Hong Kong, Turkey or Bahrain, the UK government must show meaningful solidarity and support for the rights of campaigners, rather than continuing to contribute to their repression.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), @CAATuk

This piece was amended on 12 August 2019. An earlier version said that the value of UK arms exports in 2018 was £5.2bn


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