Figures published yesterday by UK Export Finance (which used to be called the Export Credit Guarantee Department) give a glimpse into the debts owed to Britain by other (usually developing) countries, and why they were taken on in the first place.
The figures show the total debts taken on by any country that still owes some. To that extent they are limited: we don’t know how much each of these countries owes, nor how much we have lent to other countries in the past.
But what they do show is that the UK has a long record of lending money to repressive regimes, often to buy British-made weapons, which were then sometimes used against civilians.
The figures show that for most of the 20 countries on the list, the UK did not lend for defence purposes.
However, there are a handful of countries to whom Britain lent hundreds of millions to buy weapons – and under British rules, a large portion of that had to be to buy British weapons. We lent so much to those countries, in fact, that defence spending accounts for over a quarter of the overall amount of money on the list. Here are the full figures (countries are ordered by the amount they borrowed):
The stats hide some powerful stories. The money to Indonesia, for example, was lent consistently over several decades, during the rule of General Suharto. While in opposition, Robin Cook spoke out consistently against what he said was the use of this money to buy weapons which were then used against Indonesian civilians in East Timor. But the lending seems to have continued when Labour came to power and Cook was foreign secretary, until the country defaulted in the late 1990s.
There are other such instances in the story I wrote for the FT here.
It is no surprise that even this limited information has led to renewed calls by debt campaigners for the government to stop claiming repayments from populations for money lent by previous tyrannical leaders and used against them. Tim Jones, policy officer for the Jubilee debt campaign, said:
The figures reveal a past history of horrendous loans to dictators such as General Mubarak, General Suharto and Saddam Hussein for military equipment. People in these countries should not have to pay these unjust debts.
As yet, there has been no response from the UKEF, which published the data, and is responsible for collecting the debt.