See Update 1 below
If a logical argument produces outrageous results, the premises of the argument must be questioned. On face value, it seems logical for the British government to promote and sanction the sale of weapons and surveillance equipment to known human rights abusers. British arms manufacturers profit to the tune of millions of pounds and these companies return the favour to the British people by paying taxes and employing people. Naturally, this logic involves dismissing repressed populations as subhuman.
There is theory and then there are facts. The major arms and surveillance supplier, BAE Systems, has been consistently cutting British jobs for cheaper climes – over 9,000 in the last few years. Moreover, BAE Systems actually deprives the public of tax revenue in two major ways. The government pays the company subsidies – £4bn from public funds in 2009-10, equivalent to a £64 donation from every person in the UK. Secondly, like many corporations, BAE Systems has legal involvement in New Jersey to minimise tax payments on its billion pound revenues.
It is not, therefore, clear that the arms trade benefits public funds. However, defenders insist that the employment the sector provides in Britain, though a small percentage overall, is important nonetheless.
But selling known mass torturers, imprisoners and murderers military equipment whilst claiming to be a democratic force is outrageous. As the cross-party Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) stated in a recent critical report: “The government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time.”
The British government insists that it does not sanction the sale of military equipment “where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
This begs the question as to what a tyrannical regime, such as Saudi Arabia, will do with the sniper rifles, assault rifles, hand grenades, water cannons, military jets and vehicles it buys from Britain. Human Rights Watch describes Saudi Arabia as having “responded with unflinching repression to demands by citizens for greater democracy in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements.” Demonstrations are currently banned and dissenters are being detained without charge and tortured.
The British government says that states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are slowly reforming human rights abuse for the better. Such claims exaggerate what are generally minor or, simply, cosmetic changes. Human Rights Watch reports that between 2007 and 2008, Saudi Arabia gave its judiciary some independence, gave women some improved rights, though they remain legally equivalent to minors and finally brought thousands of languishing detainees to trial in a new terrorist court. Yet, Human Rights describe these changes as “largely symbolic.”
Meanwhile, that same new terrorist court is being used to convict peaceful dissenters – merely talking to the BBC about the need for democracy, Human Rights Watch reports, was enough for one individual, Khalid al-Juhani, to be charged with “distorting the kingdom’s reputation.” Detainees continue to be tortured.
Bahrain is also undergoing reform, our government says, seeking to justify its close relationship with the dictatorship. The Guardian’s Louisa Loveluck describes Bahrain’s reforms as “hollow” as the state recently confirmed the convictions of 20 prominent dissidents. Saudi Arabia came to Bahrain’s aid in crushing the uprising of 2011.
Whilst the British government condemns the Syrian regime for its brutality against its people, they continue to approve the sale of weapons and spy equipment to an array of despots, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. Fallen dictators, such as Muammar Gaddafi (Libya) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) were regular buyers of British weapons. They were also regular torturers and abusers of their people.
The outrageousness of profiting from oppression is made all the clearer by the Syria conflict. To the fury of our government, Bashir al-Assad warned that any foreign intervening force into the country would face chemical weapons. The world condemned this. And, yet, in 2002 a British newspaper reported that Britain was secretly selling chemical agents to a number of countries, including Syria.
By immorally selling weapons and spy technology to tyrants, the British government is inciting the hatred of swathes of repressed victim populations. This hatred is being exploited by fundamentalist terror groups to recruit members to their cause. This belies the claim that supporting “stable” tyrannies like Saudi Arabia keeps us safe. 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
The logic of arming tyrants comes down to profit, markets and strategic resources. Britain’s biggest weapons clients are Arabian and North African regimes. This, of course, is where the world’s greatest source of energy is – what the US State Department once described as “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the great material prizes in world history”. It is, apparently, in the interests of the British government to strengthen client dictatorships in order to continue to have control over this energy source.
But, the commercial logic of selling arms to torturers treats human suffering, death, war – and even terrorist attacks – as costs of the transaction. It makes some sense and it is outrageous. The premise of the logic must be wrong.
An important point that I missed in this article is the simple fact that Britain itself is a human rights abuser, as exemplified grotesquely by the invasion and occupation of Iraq contrary to the international legal requirements of valid self-defence or UN security council resolution. It is, therefore, little surprise that Britain should enable human rights abuse by other states that subordinate their behaviour to British (and US) interests.
Britain should first stop committing direct human rights abuse itself – and stop enabling others to do so.