THE UK Government has faced increasing calls to suspend arms sales to Israel in recent weeks with more than 33,000 Palestinians killed since October 7. 

First Minister Humza Yousaf as well as Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar have been among those to call for action.

Last week, we also told how SNP MP Brendan O’Hara asked the Commons: “For how much longer is the UK going to send humanitarian aid to Gaza while simultaneously licensing weapons sales to Israel?”

The National has spoken with an international relations professor at the University of Sussex, Anna Stavrianakis, on how arms sales work and what’s preventing the UK Government from halting them. 

How do arms sales work? 

Any company who wants to export military or dual-use goods must apply for a licence from the Government to do so. 

The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) – which sits within the Department for Business and Trade – is responsible for processing licence applications. 

However, the process also draws together expertise from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. 

Stavrianakis, who also serves as director of research and strategy at Shadow World Investigations, explains: “The companies will enter into a contract with whoever it is they’re suppling. It might be another arms company, the military or a specific government. 

“But because weapons are regulated by the Government, the company can’t export them without the permission of the UK Government.”

Two types of licences

Companies can apply for any number of licences from the UK Government. One example of this is a Standard Individual Export Licence. 

“This is when it’s for a stated quantity of a specific item to a named end user,” Stavrianakis explains.

READ MORE:  Our week-long series on UK arms exports starts today

However, companies can also apply for an Open General Export Licence (OGEL), which “allow unlimited exports or unlimited deliveries of military equipment for a particular project”.

Stavrianakis added: “So for example, there is an OGEL for the F-35 fighter jet programme. That will include for American variants, Israeli variants and so on and there are 79 UK-based companies who are listed on that open licence and it is still current. 

“So we don’t know the financial value or the equipment that has been exported under that licence.”

How easy is it to be granted a licence? 

According to the UK Parliament website, the Government says its policy on export control is “not to frustrate or hamper the ability of companies to trade, but to make the world a safer place for us all by operating a clear, proportionate, and robust system of controls”.

The UK is one of the largest exporters of arms in the world. According to statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK was the seventh largest exporter of major conventional weapons between 2018 and 2022 (behind the US, Russia, France, China, Germany and Italy). 

Stavrianakis points out that companies will “always complain about paperwork and regulation” but that really the environment is beneficial to those wanting to sell arms. 

“The regulatory side is really good for industry because it protects their reputation,” she says. 

“When companies get criticised, they say don’t take it up with us, take it up with the Government. 

“They can always say they abide by laws and policies that are set out by the Government, so it serves to protect companies’ reputations.”

However, she also adds that the benefits of this system work both ways because the UK Government will always say it “can’t go into specifics because it’s commercially confidential”.

“I would say that overall the licencing regime is permissive. And the Government is explicit about that – they say they want to promote the British arms industry and arms export because they’re good for jobs and securities. 

READ MORE: How much does Britain make from arms sales?

“The jobs argument is really heavily contested and overall arms exports are not a major positive contributor to the UK economy.

“The security arguments themselves are also contested – is what’s happening in Gaza in the UK’s security interests, I would argue not.”

How does international law come into this? 

At the beginning of April, The Guardian revealed that more than 600 lawyers, academics and retried senior judges warned the UK Government is breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel. 

In a letter to Rishi Sunak (below), the signatories said the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic” and that the UK is legally obliged to act to prevent it, particularly after the International Court of Justice found a plausible risk of genocide being committed. 

The National: Rishi Sunak

When the ECJU assess licence applications, they reflect on the UK’s obligations under international law, and the risk that the goods could possibly be used in the violation of international humanitarian law. 

Given the events of the last few months then, how is it possible that the UK is still exporting arms to Israel? 

“You’d need David Cameron to give you an answer to that,” Stavrianakis says.

She explained: “The Foreign Office is responsible for that criterion about the clear risk (of a potential violation of humanitarian law). 

“The Foreign Office lawyers have to provide information and legal advice to the Foreign Secretary who then has to make a recommendation on the criteria to the Trade Secretary who decides whether to grant the licences or not. 

“Israel has made public statements about its commitment to complying with international humanitarian law but that’s undermined by other statements they’ve made which are genocidal in intent and by military practices which are indiscriminate. 

“It’s engaging in indiscriminate bombing but also deliberately targeting journalists, health workers and aid workers so it’s indiscriminate and targeted all at the same time.

“Cameron (below) was then presented with a number of options which were to carry on as usual, suspend arms exports or, and this is the option he chose, carry on allowing them but keep them under careful review. 

The National: Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron has spoken to Benny Gantz (James Manning/PA)

“Foreign Office lawyers were clear with Cameron that the assessment on Israeli commitment is his decision. He has made the political decision that Israel is committed to complying with humanitarian law because we’re still supplying weapons.”

This is further complicated by the fact that a leaked recording from The Observer which found former Foreign Office official Alicia Kearns saying the Government has received advice from its own lawyers stating Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza but has failed to make this public – meaning the UK would have to cease all arms sales to Israel without delay. 

At the time, a Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We keep advice on Israel’s adherence to international humanitarian law under review and ministers act in accordance with that advice, for example, when considering export licences. 

“The content of the Government’s advice is confidential.”

How easy would it be for the Government to stop arms exports? 

For such a complicated process, Stavrianakis explains it is “simple” for the Government to stop arms because it has the “power not only to issue licences but to amend them and suspend and revoke them”.

“The Government makes a play of that when talking about how efficient and robust their licensing is. 

“They say ‘we have the ability to revoke licences if we need to’. The UK could absolutely revoke all existing licences and suspend the processing of any new ones.”

As an example, she adds that this could have been done following the death of three British aid workers following an Israeli strike at the starts of April

“If it revokes existing licences, the Department for Business and Trade would issue a notice to all exporters saying these licences, either all of those for end-use in Israel or specific licences for particular types of equipment, are revoked. 

“It would say a particular range of licences has been revoked and the companies would be given a certain amount of time to sort out the logistics of halting deliveries. 

“Once that’s been done, companies are prohibited from delivering any more weapons under that licence and my guess would be they’d respect that because it’s not in their interests to be seen to ignore that. 

“To check compliance with this, that would be a job for HMRC so the Business and Trade Department would have to make sure it was clear this had been done. 

“Any company that wants to start sending weapons to Israel could be told the Government isn’t accepting any new applications. 

“That’s what it could be doing, it has the power to do that.”