LONDON: Britain is selling millions of pounds worth of small arms and ammunition to Sri Lanka despite the country’s dire human rights record, The Independent can disclose.
Figures taken from the government’s own database show how the authorities in Colombo have gone on a buying spree of British small arms and weaponry worth at least £3 million.
Some of the items sold to Sri Lanka include pistols, rifles, assault rifles, body armour and combat shotguns — despite the Foreign Office still classifying the South Asian country as a “country of concern” for rights abuses.
The sales indicate how far President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has been welcomed back into the international fold by Britain, despite the behaviour of his armed forces during the brutal last few months of the 2009 civil war.
The conflict was the culmination of a 30-year conflict with violent Tamil Tiger separatists and resulted in the deaths of between 60,000 and 100,000 people over a four-month period, most of whom were civilians.
Both sides were accused of human rights abuses and although the Sri Lankan government won a comprehensive victory against the Tigers, it has since resisted international calls for an independent investigation into well-documented allegations that Sri Lankan army soldiers were involved in rape, torture, extra-judicial killings and the deliberate targeting of civilians.
The figures on Britain’s most recent arms sales come from the government’s own Export Controls Organisation, which releases quarterly figures. They reveal that in the three months between July and September last year, the UK approved export licences worth £3.741 million, of which just over £3 million were military items.
More than £2 million of the sales came under the “ML1” label — a category used by the government to denote small arms and weapons. Export licences were granted on four separate occasions — once in July and three times in August. In total the government approved the sale of 600 assault rifles, 650 rifles, 100 pistols and 50 combat shotguns. The sales also included £330,000-worth of ammunition and £655,000 in body armour.
It is not clear whether the sales are a one-off or represent a significant increase in British weaponry heading to Sri Lanka. From the beginning of 2008 to June 2012, the value of export licences to Sri Lanka amounted to just £12m.
Nonetheless there were no licence refusals in the third quarter of last year, despite concerns being raised about human rights in Sri Lanka. At the time, judges in the High Court were granting a slew of last-minute injunctions to stop the government forcibly deporting failed Tamil asylum seekers due to clear evidence that some of them risked being tortured on their return.
Human Rights Watch, Freedom from Torture and Tamils Against Genocide have documented at least 40 cases where Tamils who were returned to Sri Lanka from European nations in the past two years have been tortured during interrogation by the Sri Lankan authorities.
The rush of sales came just a month after President Rajapakse was welcomed to Britain alongside fellow Commonwealth leaders to attend the queen’s jubilee celebrations in June. Although the trip involved no declared business deals, Rajapakse was photographed shaking hands with the queen at a lunch for Commonwealth leaders.