LONDON Britain will tighten its arms export rules so it can swiftly halt sales of weapons, ammunition and tear gas to countries where there has been a sharp deterioration in security, the government said on Thursday.
The move is a response to criticism during the Arab Spring uprisings that Britain had recently approved the export of crowd control equipment that could have been used against demonstrators in countries such as Libya and Bahrain.
Prime Minister David Cameron faced censure for a trip in February to the Gulf on which he was joined by executives from defence companies and other businesses.
"We will introduce a new mechanism to allow ministers to respond more rapidly and decisively to the outbreak of conflict or to unpredictable events like the Arab Spring, by suspending licensing," Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament.
Britain said in February it was revoking more than 50 arms export licenses -- including tear gas and ammunition licenses -- for Bahrain and Libya whose security forces were at that time cracking down on protests, killing and wounding demonstrators.
Some arms export licenses for Egypt and Tunisia were also revoked.
A parliamentary committee said in April that both the 17-month-old coalition government and its Labour predecessor "misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression."
The committee's report highlighted a potential conflict of interest between the coalition government's goal of boosting British manufactured exports, including weapon sales, and its commitment to uphold human rights.
Hague said in July that a review had concluded there was "no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom" during the Arab Spring, but that more work was needed on how Britain's arms control system operated.
Hague said on Thursday the government planned to introduce a new system which would allow "immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability."
"Applications in the pipeline would be stopped and no further licenses issued, pending ministerial or departmental review," he said.
Respect for human rights was already one of the mandatory criteria for approving arms export licenses, he said.
However, under the proposed new system, the Foreign Office would provide more information on the human rights situation in a country and ministerial oversight of licence applications would be increased, Hague said.