Since 2010, the UK has licensed over £10 billion worth of arms to repressive regimes and dictatorships. This figure includes £7.3 billion worth to states on the Foreign Office’s ‘countries of concern’ list. Even as the Scottish Sunday Mail obtained footage of war crimes being committed against a college in Sana’a using British bombs, UK ministers were reluctant to address any human rights concerns surrounding arms sales. And even as Britain became the world’s second biggest arms dealer as of early September (beaten only by the US), much of the mainstream media continued to sideline Britain’s role in supporting the illegal bombing of Yemen. Little fuss was made over the news that from 2010 the government had approved the sale of arms to 22 out of the 30 countries on its own human rights ‘countries of concern’ watch list.
Reports of human rights abuses in Yemen were met by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with a cautiously ambiguous claim that no ‘clear breach’ had occurred. Johnson didn’t offer a definition of this phrase, but in Whitehall’s lexicon this typically means that a breach has in fact occurred but that insufficient pressure has been placed on the government to respond to the crisis and so, in effect, it can continue to feign concern while continuing to license arms to the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Though displaying an intense lack of concern for Britain’s humanitarian credentials, Johnson was simply continuing a policy outlined by his predecessor, Philip Hammond, who, when the Saudi bombing campaign began in early 2015, said: ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’.
Neither Johnson nor any other member of the Tory Cabinet drew attention to a recent Oxfam report which revealed that, out of a total population of 27 million, 21 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, while over 10,000 have been killed since the Saudi-led bombing raids began last March.
On September 7th, BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme reported on how MPs had attempted to water down an investigation by the Committees on Arms Export Controls into whether the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be suspended. The report strongly recommended that it should; senior MPs John Spellar and Crispin Blunt tried to alter much of the language to tone down the culpability of the government in the human rights abuses taking place in Yemen. The report recommended that the UK suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until a UN investigation was carried out. Blunt replaced this recommendation with a reference to a legal case projected to reach the High Court in 2017, whereas Spellar removed it altogether.
The programme’s host Emily Maitlis looked into the camera and asked with a straight face, ‘Can we afford to upset Saudi Arabia on this question of arms sales or does the question betray cowardice?’ Newsnight asked both MPs to comment, and both declined. Of all the people in the world for Newsnight to interview over the affair, only the hawkish Hilary Benn and a former army general, Simon Mayall, were chosen. Blunt later appeared on the programme, only to remain silent when pushed too hard about UK complicity in war crimes. It transpired that Blunt had even walked out of a committee meeting to delay publication of the report when it was clear that his recommended revisions would be rejected.
Johnson, Blunt and Spellar may well have had the following information from the Daily Telegraph in mind when defending an otherwise morally indefensible industry: ‘Apart from maintaining traditional links on military and intelligence cooperation, Mr Jubeir also said post-Brexit Britain could look forward to forging new trade links with the kingdom as Saudi Arabia embarks on its ambitious plan to restructure its economy under a plan called Saudi Vision 2030. “We are looking at more than $2 trillion worth of investment opportunities over the next decade, and this will take the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain to an entirely new level post-Brexit.”’ Why make an effort to halt the bombing of schools and overcrowded hospitals when exciting new business ventures loom on the horizon?
Recently, Scottish universities have been criticised in a small number of newspapers for investing millions in arms firms accused of war crimes. Scottish universities are a major source of support for the arms trade, allowing these kinds of violations of international law to continue. The University of Glasgow is a major arms trade investor, with £1.3m being invested in the arms trade in addition to £551,288 worth of shares in BAE Systems. In 2014, student organisers successfully forced the university to divest from fossil fuels, and a similar campaign was launched in 2015 to pressure the university to divest from BAE Systems.
A year later in February 2016, not too far away in Edinburgh students blockaded the central business district and demanded an end to arms trade and fossil fuel investments. The University of Edinburgh boasts over £6m in financial endowments held in these industries, with, for instance, at least £621,000 being invested in Meggit, a company which supplies drone technology in Afghanistan and sells arms to Bahrain. Ellie Jones, one of the students who was also campaigning with People & Planet, said: ‘The university cannot continue to invest in industries that cause and profit from climate change and war. Investment is a political choice with real consequences for some of the most vulnerable communities worldwide’.
Focus on university links to the arms trade is pivotal, but the Scottish Government should also be held to account. Despite its vocal criticism of Trident renewal and arms sales to Israel, in 2015 the Scottish Parliament pension fund invested £587,000 in Rolls-Royce, Meggit and Ultra Electronics (CAAT News, Iss. 239, January-March 2016). These three firms have applied for military export licenses to Israel, and Rolls-Royce has a £1.1 billion contact to produce new reactor cores for the next generation of Trident missiles. The Scottish government is rhetorically strong on clamping down on the arms trade, but in practice often falls short of its stated ideals.
Cases such as this suggest that the legal and parliamentary mechanisms which allow the arms trade to successfully and consistently commit to its more egregious clients should be reformed, and the strong state-corporate ties between government and top arms firms seriously compromise the public’s ability to hold the industry to account and implement the government’s own ethical export criteria. The arms trade has integrated itself into a number of public and quasi-public institutions, with the two major types being universities and museums, lending itself an air of humane legitimacy and discouraging governmental and public bodies from questioning its business activities too much. These activities should be harshly scrutinised.
In a brief documentary report, Peter Oborne described the destruction of Sana’a (fuelled by UK arms sales) in the following terms: ‘This city of old Sana’a is as extraordinary, as priceless, as unique as any of the masterpieces of Western civilisation – like Florence or Venice. Just imagine the outcry if bombs were falling on Florence or Venice. But because this is old Sana’a, in forgotten Yemen, nobody cares a damn’. Scotland’s leading universities, who claim to be deeply in touch with the ways of human progress, creativity and ingenuity, should urgently heed Oborne’s warning.