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.


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