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THE government is facing growing calls to suspend sales of tear gas, riot shields and rubber bullets to the United States as MPs throw their weight behind the campaign.
Human-rights groups expressed fears earlier this week that British-manufactured weapons are being used to repress civil-rights protests across the US.
The country’s major cities have been engulfed by mass demonstrations on consecutive nights, sparked by last Monday’s police killing of George Floyd.
Military police have attempted to quell the protests violently, with scenes of officers ramming cars into crowds and firing tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters and journalists, resulting in at least two cases of demonstrators being blinded in one eye.
On Tuesday Labour’s shadow international-trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, demanded the suspension of sales of riot-control weapons to the US, pending a review on whether they are being used against protesters.
In a letter to her counterpart, Liz Truss, she said: “If this were any other leader, in any other country in the world, the suspension of any such exports is the least we could expect from the British government in response to [the anti-protest] actions, and our historic alliance with the United States is no reason to shirk that responsibility now.”
Amnesty International said there was a “very real risk” that British-manufactured crowd-control weapons are being used in “dangerous and highly inappropriate ways.”
Under current laws, the British government must not grant licences for the export of arms and equipment that might be used for internal repression.
Last year ministers banned sales of tear gas to Hong Kong amid violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police.
British government data shows that in recent years ministers have approved export licences to US military and law-enforcement agencies for crowd-control ammunition and tear gas.
Such sales are made through open licences, meaning that neither the value of the goods nor which police forces may be using them is known.
However, according to Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Britain has licensed £2.1 million worth of security and paramilitary police equipment to the US since 2008, most of which seems to have been spent on anti-riot/ballistic shields.
Andrew Smith of CAAT said that these sales should “never have taken place.”
“Racism and violence is not a new problem, and nor is it exclusive to the US,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a story that has been happening for centuries.
“These arms sales should never have taken place and the government must ensure that they do not happen again. This kind of equipment is always repressive — and it can be deadly.”
The government is likely to face more pressure this week to halt sales, with Labour MP Dawn Butler announcing on Twitter that she is co-ordinating a “growing group of cross-party MPs.”
In Scotland, the SNP government was also urged during First Minister’s Questions yesterday to come clean on whether it funds companies involved in arming US police.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that she agreed with the concerns raised about export licences for companies providing weapons.
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