On anniversary of George Floyd killing campaigners accuse UK government of ‘empowering’ and ‘enabling’ crackdown on anti-racism protesters
The British government approved the export of more riot gear to the US just months after security forces violently put down Black Lives Matter protests in the country, The Independent can reveal.
On the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, which sparked last year’s wave of discontent, campaigners accused UK ministers of “empowering, enabling and legitimising” crackdowns on anti-racism protesters across the Atlantic.
The government’s own export rules say arms and other controlled equipment must not exported to countries where there is a risk it could be used for internal repression.
But despite well-documented evidence of US security forces attacking peaceful protesters and detaining journalists – including one reporting for The Independent – more exports were allowed to go ahead.
Government statistics show £420,000 worth of ‘anti-riot’ shields were approved for sale to the US in October 2020, with another open licence for unlimited exports of CS gas, tear gas and irritant left open.
Asked about the exports, officials say reviews carried out by civil servants in July and September found there was no risk of equipment being used for internal repression, despite the exercise assuming the equipment would be used by US forces to police Black Lives Matter protests.
“The violence we saw against protesters last summer was appalling. And it seems that as soon as it was out of the headlines the arms sales resumed,” said Siana Bangura of Campaign Against Arms Trade, which collated the official figures.
“We know that there is a very real risk of this equipment being used for repression, because it literally already has been. By arming and supporting police forces responsible for ongoing violence, Downing Street is empowering, enabling and legitimising their abuses.”
“In the end, all our struggles are connected – where there is violence and catastrophe, all roads seem to lead back to the UK government, a government which continues to approve the sale of arms to countries subject to criticisms over Human Rights abuses.
“The fact that these sales to the US happened straight after the crackdown is a sign of the contempt that the government holds for democracy and anti-racism campaigners. If UK arms export controls are meant to mean anything at all then these licences must be revoked.”
She added: “Police violence and racism is not new, and nor is it exclusive to the US. The UK arms dozens of violent and repressive police forces around the world, and many of the issues raised will be familiar to people here and beyond – from Colombia to Palestine.
“Despite people dropping to their knees and posting black squares on their Instagram grids in a bid to perform their solidarity, UK forces are becoming increasingly militarised and the tally of people who have died in police custody or directly following police contact continues to increase, with zero convictions and zero semblance of justice for their families.”
In late July the government secretly suspended the issue of new export licences for arms to the US while its first review was pending.
US police used gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters and also targeted journalists since the beginning of the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
More than 70 journalists were also arrested during the protests. The Independent launched its Journalism Is Not A Crime campaign to highlight press freedom in the face of the crackdown in the US.
Liz Truss, the international trade secretary in charge of approving arms exports, is also the government’s equality minister. Last year she was accused of trying to “resucitate racism” after she pledged to steer the government away from “fashionable” topics such as racial inequality. The minister in a speech slammed “identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of lived experience”.
Asked about the licences, a UK government spokesperson said: “We consider all our export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard. This, of course, applies to our exports to the US.
“The UK takes its export control responsibilities seriously and operates one of the most robust and transparent export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine each export licence application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”