The UK's commitments to conflict prevention and the protection of human rights and international humanitarian law in its arms export controls are now over 20 years old. However, the outbreak of war or conflict has had little or no restraining effect on UK arms exports. This article explores the function of the UK's arms export control regime given that its primary effect is not to restrict arms transfers. I argue that the mantra that the UK has one of the most robust control regimes in the world is not a plausible description of the realities of UK export policy – rather, it is a myth that needs to be debunked. Export controls are primarily mobilised by the state to manage controversy once criticism emerges from civil society and Parliament and thus primarily serve a legitimating function. I illustrate this argument with examples of arms exports in relation to the conflicts in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Yemen, demonstrating three ways in which UK export controls are missing in action: the routine misuse of UK-supplied weapons; the narrow interpretation of risk in licensing policy; and self-serving reviews to manage reputation once controversy breaks out.
Photo by Enrico Hänel