Arms companies and the government are evading export controls by supplying countries with components rather than complete weapons systems whose sale would be banned, according to a report published today by leading aid and human rights groups.
They accuse the government of double standards by exploiting loopholes enabling it to get round international embargoes and its own human rights guidelines.
There has been an eleven-fold increase in the number of weapons components licensed for export in recent years, says the report by Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms.
The loophole has enabled British arms components to be sold to countries including Zimbabwe, Israel, Indonesia, Uganda, Colombia, Nepal, and the Philippines.
A shift in policy was discreetly announced by Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, in 2002. He added new criteria including the "importance of the UK's defense and security relationship with the incorporating country".
His move was prompted by the sale of British components for American F-16 fighter aircraft destined for Israel and used in raids on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Published official figures on arms exports refer to components but do not give the total value or amount. However, the report Lock, Stock, and Barrel: how British arms components add up to deadly weapons, includes many examples where British weapons components are sold to countries directly covered by arms embargoes.
Often, the British parts are re-exported, or incorporated in complete weapons systems, ending up in countries covered by embargoes or which do not meet Britain's guidelines on human rights and regional conflicts. British weapons components sold to Uganda, Namibia or Angol, could well end up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is covered by an EU arms embargo.
Mr Straw will appear before the Commons Quadripartite committee on arms exports today and will come under strong pressure to close the loophole covering the components for weapons systems.
Roger Berry, chairman of the committee, described the issue yesterday as "incredibly important and particularly timely". Small arms, which include many British components, were "weapons of mass destruction", he said.
He said the government's reasoning behind the sale of parts for American F-16 aircraft was unacceptable.
Justin Forsyth, Oxfam director of policy, said: "The government has put lives at risk by setting up false and dangerous double standards. Whether a machinegun comes in pieces or ready made the suffering it can cause in the wrong hands is just the same."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004