The British government has been criticised for lining up cabinet members to speak at a weapons fair, but failing to send a minister to a UN event aimed at stopping the trade of illicit arms.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, are among those speaking at the London arms fair, which begins on Tuesday and is one of the biggest weapons and security fairs in the world. Harriett Baldwin, minister for defence procurement, and Ben Wallace, minister of state for security, will also attend.
More than 100 people were arrested in the runup to the event as they tried to prevent arms companies from setting up their stands.
The fair coincides with the arms trade treaty conference in Geneva to discuss the implementation of the historic 2014 agreement, which attempts to regulate the trade of weapons and promote responsible action by states.
Anna Macdonald of campaign group Control Arms said: “It’s very clear where the UK government’s priorities lie. It is sending in the ‘heavyweights’ – Liam Fox and Michael Fallon – to deliver keynote speeches at the arms fair and help seal million-pound contracts that could lead to the deaths of millions of civilians. But they have no ministerial representation at the arms trade treaty conference, where decisions made could save millions of lives.”
The UK is a signatory to the treaty but human rights groups have accused the government of ignoring its obligations by supplying arms to countries where there is a risk they could contribute to human rights violations.
According to Control Arms, in 2016, the UK authorised arms and military equipment sales to the Philippines, where thousands have been killed in a clampdown on drugs, and to Venezuela where more than 130 people have been killed in anti-government protests since April.
Campaigners also point to the conflict in Yemen, where airstrikes by Saudi Arabia have hit schools and hospitals, killing and maiming children. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has agreed orders for British defence equipment worth more than £3.75bn, mainly bombs and fighter aircraft. The crisis in Yemen, where at least 5,144 people have been killed and 7.3 million are on the brink of famine, has been described by the UN as an “entirely manmade catastrophe”.
George Graham of Save the Children said that research commissioned by the charity suggests most British people oppose such sales.
“The UK must urgently suspend arms sales until there is a proper international investigation and our allies stop blocking vital humanitarian aid,” said Graham. “Our bombs are also being sent to countries which are killing Yemeni children, bombing schools and hospitals, and impeding aid access.”
The arms trade treaty was the first legally binding international agreement obliging states to ensure responsible arms controls are put in place. It was heralded as a landmark move that could reduce suffering as a result of armed conflict. The treaty also requires states that export arms to consider the risk that weapons could be used for gender-based violence, or could harm children.
Nounou Booto Meeti, programme director for Centre for Peace, Security and Armed Violence Prevention, and who is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that if implemented properly, the treaty could protect women.
“[During the conflict in DRC] armed groups would get their arms without any control because at that time there were no international regulations on arms trade and anybody could sell arms to anyone. Such weapons are still used today to terrorise women,” said Booto Meeti, who is a member of the Control Arms delegation in Geneva.
“When someone has a gun they have the power. [A reduction in arms would mean] fewer atrocities, and fewer atrocities against women.”
But campaigners say the treaty has failed to live up to expectations. Macdonald said too much time had been spent on process and shuffling paper, while signatories had failed to take any action.
James Lynch, head of arms control and human rights at Amnesty International, added that the treaty has been let down by poor implementation. Under the agreement, states are required to submit annual reports on their arms imports and exports, but Lynch said that only 48 of 75 countries had done so for 2016. Some countries have also left large sections of their report blank or aggregated information so that it is impossible to analyse.
“This is not just an administrative concern,” said Lynch. “The fact that some states are choosing to leave huge gaps, or are not submitting their reports at all, raises disturbing questions about what they are trying to hide.”
The UK government said in a statement that defence exports are kept under careful and continual review. It added: “The UK is the third largest donor to Yemen, having committed more than £139m in UK aid this year. We are also playing a leading role in diplomatic efforts to achieve a political solution that can end the conflict and the terrible humanitarian suffering, including building support for the UN special envoy’s proposals for peace.
“The intervention by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition came at the request of Yemen’s internationally recognised president, whose government was forced to flee following a violent takeover by the Houthi rebel group. Since then rebels have launched missile attacks into Saudi Arabia and committed serious human rights violations.”