See Update 1 below
“We do believe countries have a right to defend themselves,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron whilst touring the Middle East. This means that it is “legitimate and right” that the British government licences the sale of weapons to authoritarian regimes. All the ‘defence industry’ does is enable countries to defend themselves – what could be wrong with that?
There are three major things factually wrong with this claim. Weapons are not sold to ‘countries’ but ‘rulers‘. These weapons are often put to aggressive use to pursue strategic goals rather than in legitimate self-defence. Not everyone has a right to self-defence – not repressed populations of client dictators, not official ‘enemy’ regimes, nor their people.
So if Camerson was to speak honestly, he’d say, “we do believe that all our strategic allies have the right to maintain and, even, expand their power, even it means continued oppression and aggression.”
The euphemism of “defence” seeks to hide the fact that British weapons and technology are sold to known human rights abusers. History shows that even elected regimes are more than capable of putting their military to aggressive use. The US-lead invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation is a recent case in point. Saddam Hussein posed no credible imminent threat to the invaders and therefore, there was no self-defence justification. The same can be said of the current US drone campaign which targets people in a number of countries without any judicial oversight or accountability to assess the legimitacy of the assassination or the innocent civilian deaths that occur. By way of example, the US executive has so far failed to explain why it killed the 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki and his 17 year old cousin in Yemen.
Naturally, authoritarian regimes will also use aggression to pursue strategic goals, the most basic of which is to maintain control of a repressed population. They are ‘defending’ themselves but without a shred of legitimacy. So, when Egyptian security forces were assaulting democracy protesters in Tahrir Square, in 2011, some of their tear gas was made by British plc, Chemring Group. Such sales have not been licenced by the government since 1998; Chemring say that the sale may have been made before then or entered Egypt via a third-party.
Authoritarian regimes have no legitimate right to self-defence against populations they are repressing. So when the British government approves the likes of Chemring Group, BAE Systems, Boeing UK and others to sell equipment to known dictators and/or abusers, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria or Yemen, they are knowingly supporting human rights abuse and, in the case of Israel or the US, war crimes. In April 2009, David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, admitted in a ministerial statement that British components “almost certainly” aided Israel to kill over 1,000 Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead. Chemring Group’s Norwegian subsidiary, Chemring Nobel, meanwhile, supplies explosive ingredients to US Hellfire drones, weapons responsible for untold misery in various countries.
With defence spending constraints growing in the West, arms manufacturers are targetting the authoritarian states of the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, for sales. They recognise that these regimes are nervy about further threats to their control following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The struggle for democracy goes on in, for example, in Egypt, where the military continue to wield the power, despite the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, brute force was able to quieten dissent for now.
So, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and co. need to defend themselves against their people. They have, apparently, a right to self-defence and ought to receive guns, tanks, bombs, surveillance equipment and so and so forth. British goverment approved arms makers like BAE and Chemring Group were out in force at the recent IDEX 2013 arms fair in UAE, flaunting their latest equipment to international buyers.
The arms trade, as it exists, is an amoral and inhumane international business, shielded by governments. It recognises no real distinction between legitimate self-defence and brutal aggression. The defining factor for the industry, rather, is political strategy and money. Any organisation that partners with the trade is complicit in grave human rights abuse and immorality. Currently, any number of British universities and national museums accept money and business with arms traders.
A crucial point that I missed in this article is that Britain is a prominent and proven human rights abuser having participated in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan contrary to the legal requirements of genuine self-defence or UN security council resolution. Britain also supported the US in the George Bush Administration torture and rendition network, at least, providing the US with intelligence on suspects to be captured and tortured.
We should not just be asking why Britain sells weapons to known human rights abusers but, also, why Britain commits egregious human rights violations.