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Keeping Britain Global: Arms Control

UNA-UK's report, "Keeping Britain Global" makes the case that Britain needs to champion global values, and invest in the health of our international system andmakes reccomendations across five key areas where we believe the UK can make a useful contribution at a global level, and where we feel Britain’s willingness to take action will provide a fair and appropriate test of Britain’s support for the rules-based international order. This is what we have to say about:

Arms control

Arms control represents one of the most tangible ways in which our global system of rules and standards can make the world a safer place. 

Having played a key role in the creation of international treaties banning cluster munitions and landmines, and in the development and adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), successive UK governments have understood the imperative for international controls and have shown leadership in driving progress among the international community. 

But since the ATT entered into force in December 2014, the UK has continued to export arms to countries with poor human rights records, most notably, Saudi Arabia – a country engaged in a violent conflict in Yemen. According the UN figures, the death toll of the Yemen conflict stands at more than 10,000, many of whom, civilians, with a further 19 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

Two Parliamentary Committees in 2016 called for a suspension of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia, stating that “the UK’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, primarily through arms sales in the face of evidence of International Humanitarian Law violations, is inconsistent with the UK’s global leadership role in the rule of law and international rulesbased systems.” The UK has not followed this advice, nor has it been supportive of efforts to establish an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes in Yemen.

Such actions undermine the ATT, damage the UK’s standing and influence on matters of international peace and security, and are at odds with Britain’s responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. 

Existing arms control frameworks are also being challenged by rapid advances in technology. The expanded use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles has dramatically changed warfare, bringing with it new humanitarian and legal implications which the UK is yet to address. Creeping autonomy in weapons systems is raising the spectre of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – or ‘killer robots’ – giving rise to new ethical and legal challenges.

International consensus on the use of armed drones and the development of LAWS is urgently required.Given the security threat to Britain of the proliferation of such technology, regulation is also squarely in the UK’s national interest. 

Leadership from the UK on these issues could have a significant strengthening effect on the rules-based international system as well as help recover the UK’s historic role at the forefront of international arms control initiatives.


The UK should:

  • Implement the Arms Trade Treaty to a consistently high standard, refraining from conduct which undermines the Treaty, including by ceasing arms exports to countries where there is concern that they will be used to commit war crimes and human rights violations
  • Articulate a clear and coherent policy on its use of armed drones for counterterrorism purposes, both within and outside the context of armed conflict – with mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability
  • Publish a detailed policy on its approach to autonomy in weapons systems, and take on a more active role in international fora to build consensus for an international framework to control the development and deployment of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

Back to Keeping Britain Global.

Read more about our work on arms control