Guns assembled in the UK may be arming child soldiers, says report
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Guns assembled in the UK may be arming child soldiers, says report

European charities say German weapons firms bypass domestic controls by using British subsidiaries, exploiting a lack of transparency over UK arms sales.

Rifles and submachine guns assembled in the UK could be exported for use in conflicts involving child soldiers, according to a report by European children’s charities.

The report accuses Heckler & Koch (H&K) – a German company that is among the world’s largest producers of small arms – of sidestepping obstacles to exports at home by using its subsidiary in the UK, where a “lack of transparency” has frustrated attempts to scrutinise arms deals.

H&K and another major German firm, Sig Sauer, turn to UK and US operations when guidelines and political pressure in Germany are likely to block exports to conflict-affected countries, according to the report – entitled Small Arms in the Hands of Children (EnglishGerman pdf) – by the Berlin Information-centre for Transatlantic Security.

The cases cited by the study include H&K’s attempts to export thousands of guns to Nepal in 2000-01. “When it became obvious that Germany would deny such an export deal due to public pressure because of the ongoing civil war, Heckler & Koch quickly applied for an export licence for 6,780 rifles in Great Britain, which was then granted,” said the report’s authors.

“In the end, it remains unclear if and how many rifles were exported. But even if this deal didn’t manifest itself, it nevertheless illustrates how useful such foreign subsidiaries can be.”

Weapons produced by H&K and Sig Sauer have reached Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Colombia and the Philippines, all of which have documented cases of child recruits. Germany is one of the world’s largest arms exporters.

In the 1970s, Britain’s Ministry of Defence licensed the production and assembly of some H&K arms in the UK. After the sale of H&K to a German investor group, the report states that the German arms manufacturer retained its British subsidiary. It claims that the company still sends small arms and ammunition to conflict regions via Britain.

Similarly, the report says factories in the US operated by H&K and Sig Sauer have proved useful for selling guns to countries such as Colombia.

“The decades-long policy of issuing production licences with almost no strings attached and non-existent end-use controls ensured that large quantities of German-licensed arms produced abroad ended up in conflict regions and in the hands of child soldiers,” says the report.

Green party MP Caroline Lucas, who described the research as “further evidence of Britain’s shameful record of pumping arms into war zones, said: “The findings of this report require immediate investigation, and any routes by which arms end up with child soldiers must be urgently shut down.”

The Campaign Against Arms Trade said that a lack of transparency and accountability benefits arms companies, as well as “a mindset of a government that has always put arms exports ahead of human rights”. A spokesperson for the British organisation said: “The UK government always claims to have one of the most rigorous and robust arms export control systems in the world, but in reality it does everything it can to support companies like Heckler & Koch that arm some of the most repressive and unstable regimes in the world.”

A spokesperson for Britain’s Department for International Trade said: “The government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.

“All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. Our export licensing system allows us to respond quickly to changing facts on the ground. We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes, and we constantly review local situations.”

The charities behind the report said they hoped a focus on child soldiers would help to illuminate an under-reported consequence of the lack of control in the global arms trade.

“When you bring [child soldiers] up … German MPs do then see that the arms trade and support to those countries is problematic,” said Ralf Willinger, of Terre des Hommes, one of the four organisations behind the report. “If you just say these are exports going to a war zone, or to Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t necessarily mean MPs find it problematic – but when it becomes clear that these are children with German guns, then it is something that they don’t want to happen.”

The report showed that in 1969 and 2008, the German government allowed H&K to sell Saudi Arabia licences to manufacture its assault rifles. In May 2015, Berlin admitted that Saudi Arabia, a country that Germany, the UK and the US all see as a key ally, had supplied H&K rifles to militias fighting in Yemen. On Tuesday, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had been able to verify that more than 1,400 children were recruited as part of the conflict, adding that the actual number was expected to be higher.

German weapons exports typically come with “end user certificates”, which are meant to guarantee the buyer will not pass on the weapons to other parties. However, the report noted Germany has no legal instruments in place to sanction violations of those certificates.

“That just isn’t happening,” said Willinger. “Every German fast food stand is monitored better than weapons exports are – because they have all kinds of controls, hygiene and so on. With weapons the policy is: we deliver it, hand over a piece of paper, and whether or not they abide by that, it doesn’t interest us.”

The German government insists its export controls are among the tightest in the world, and were recently tightened further. A spokesman from the economy ministry pointed out that in 2015 it banned the sale of licences to “third countries” (those not in the EU or Nato). “Such licence approvals in particular made it difficult to control whether weapons ended up in children’s hands,” he said.

He added that Germany – and the UK – is bound by an EU “common position” from 2008 that, theoretically, obliges member states not to approve deals if there is evidence children are being armed in the target country. The common position isn’t legally binding. But the report suggests arms manufacturers can bypass such obstacles by applying for export licences in different countries.

H&K and Sig Sauer did not respond to requests for comment.