Legal action threatened against government for export of surveillance equipment

Legal action threatened against government for export of surveillance equipment

Date: 14 September 2018

Legal action has been threatened against the UK government regarding the granting of export licences for surveillance equipment to countries with poor human rights records.

Social justice organisation Global Justice Now believes that licenses have been granted contrary to export laws and have written to the government to ask for more information in order to decide whether legal action might be required.

The surveillance equipment in question includes intrusion software, mobile telecommunications interception equipment and internet protocol network communications surveillance equipment and could be used by the importing countries for blanket and targeted surveillance.

Global Justice Now believes that between 1 January 2016 and 31 March 2018 the Secretary of State granted export licenses for various items of surveillance equipment and technology to a number of states with a record of internal repression, including Turkey; Egypt; Bahrain; Honduras; the UAE; the Philippines and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Many of the states identified have an established record of major violations of international human rights obligations, including the targeting of journalists, trade union activists, bloggers or simply those that do not share the political views of the ruling regime. Such persons are often subject to harassment, imprisonment, torture or, in some cases, extra-judicial assassination by, or at the behest of public authorities.

The granting of export licences for surveillance equipment is governed by the Export Control Act 2002 and guidance under the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. It is mandatory that the criteria are used by the Secretary of State to assess applications for licences to export the surveillance equipment.

The regulations set out that the government must assess the recipient country’s attitude towards relevant principles established by international human rights instruments. The government will then:

  1. not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression;
  2. exercise special caution and vigilance in granting licences, on a case-by-case basis and taking account of the nature of the equipment, to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the UN, the Council of Europe or by the European Union;
  3. not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Global Justice Now believe that the government has not followed these regulations and therefore the granting of licenses to a number of states was unlawful.

The group have asked for the government to provide clarification on a number of points including how many licences have been granted for surveillance equipment and to which countries; the end users of the surveillance equipment; how the Secretary of State assessed the importing countries’ human rights records, and how the decision was reached that any grant of a licence was compliant with Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said:

“In its desperation to establish Britain as a great post-Brexit power, the British government seems to have turned its licensing of surveillance technology into a Wild West. No regime is too repressive or unsavoury to receive dangerous products which allow them to maintain their hold on power and silence their opponents. This has grave implications for the international controls on these products, and we want to reverse this trend, if necessary in the courts. We cannot allow post-Brexit Britain to sell dangerous equipment to whoever they fancy signing a trade deal with.”

Rowan Smith, human rights solicitor at Leigh Day, said:

“Surveillance equipment can be just as harmful as bombs and bullets in repressing those that disagree with a certain regime or seek to speak out against human rights abuses. The power of surveillance equipment in our technology-driven world is immense and it is vital that the government abides by the regulations set out in law to ensure that our country does not assist others in committing human rights abuses.”