Arms-for-Dictators: a Bi-Partisan Tradition


The fringe issue of arms export criteria became headline news today, with the Independent’s splash on an ‘arms for dictators’ scandal. A parliamentary report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls raised a few eyebrows, but the embarrassment of the government approving arms sales to 25 out of 27 of the countries blacklisted as human rights abusers will soon vanish.

Of the 3,000 export licenses our government has approved, many have gone to Russia and Iran, who both support and arm the Syrian government. Items have been sent to Sri Lanka, Belarus, China and Zimbabwe – all of which feature prominently on the Foreign Office’s list of states with worrying civil rights records.

David Cameron is known for this. Only two weeks ago I wrote about his trip to the dictatorship of Kazakhstan with arms firm Rolls-Royce, where he boasted about British trade prospects. This follows on from Cameron’s tours of the gulf, where he has joined with arms firms to sell weapons to regimes who repress democracy. During the Arab spring in Bahrain and Egypt, demonstrators have been attacked with British-made tear gas, smoke canisters and demolition charges. Cameron’s arms-dealing jollies were interrupted by the Libyan Revolution, and the revoking of arms exports was a post-facto admission he was very wrong to have sold them in the first place. This dirty record was already known, for example, Amnesty have said that, “In 2009 the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers in attacks in Yemen which killed hundreds – possibly thousands – of civilians.”

For Conservatives who love to harp on about the strong rule of law, or Lib Dems who present themselves as the party of human rights, this makes for uncomfortable reading. Protecting democracy and human rights is supposed to be non-partisan, uncontroversial and supported by all. But it seems that the only thing non-partisan about human rights is that their violation through arms exports receives cross-party support, and Labour supporters have little to feel smug about given our own party’s track record.

The atrocious arms policy of Tony Blair is best explained by monitoring sales to Israel. When the Second Intifada broke out, the value of UK military export licences to Israel almost doubled from £12.5m in 2000 to £22.5m in 2001. Did this prove a good strategy? Between 2000 and 2010, 6371 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, half of whom were not participating in hostilities.

After Blair’s departure, the silent scandal continued, as David Miliband was forced to admit that British components were used in Operation Cast Lead, an attack on the Gaza strip in 2008-9 which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, and saw Israel accused of war crimes by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the UN. This cosiness looks set to continue if Labour wins in 2015, as I have argued in the wake of the recent Labour Friends of Israel lunch and Douglas Alexander’s hawkish speech.

Israel was not the only recipient of Labour’s bloodstained generosity. The genocidal General Suharto, who devastated East Timor, tends to stick in the memory, while China and even Assad’s Syria were invited to arms fairs.

Because the arms industry is given a £700m subsidy, all of us, as taxpayers, voters and citizens, are collectively responsible for these outrages. There is nothing exclusively ‘left-wing’ about supporting human rights, but the conflict between rights and business proves too much for some.

In fact, it is the relationship between business, politics and the law that needs to be re-examined here. It is clearly unacceptable to have a situation where Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s ambassador to Saudi, is allowed to help flog BAE’s £46bn arms sales to that dictatorship, only to get a job with BAE afterwards.

To cut out this damaging collusion between business and politics to ignore human rights, we need to stop thinking of this as a political scandal, or an embarrassment, and treat it as a serious violation of the law. Judges need to be empowered to issue arrest warrants for executives of arms companies who sell weapons irresponsibly, and the politicians who approve the export licenses should join them in the dock.

James Elliott is a freelance journalist living in England.


Weekend Edition
November 28-30, 2015
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving