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Friday, September 18, 2015

UK weapons sales to violent and repressive regimes

Picture courtesy of Oxfam International

Arms Trade Debate coincides with world’s largest arms fair in London, the DSEI
POLITICIANS from across party divides united at Westminster yesterday to confront the UK’s record of arming abusive and warmongering regimes across North Africa and the Middle East.

The debate on the UK’s multi-billion pound trade in weapons faced criticism for selling weapons to countries that use child soldiers, for supplying Israel’s occupation of Palestine, for supplying weapons used in alleged war crimes in Yemen, and for propping up the Saudi Arabian dictatorship.

The Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair welcomed at least seven countries who oppress their population through torture, executions and a lack of open election or freedom of speech.

Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who called the event, said: “It is time for change — fundamental change. The UK Government need to change their policies and practices, and end their military sales to despotic regimes. That change would prove popular, because 70 per cent of UK adults who were recently polled agreed that the UK Government should not promote the sale of British military equipment to foreign Governments who have a poor record on human rights.”

The ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen - where 20m people require emergency aid in the midst of a war and blockade by Saudi Arabia - is the latest case where UK supplied arms are involved in reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, said: “At least 4,000 people have been killed in the past few months. Last week, on Newsnight, we saw a water-bottling plant that was bombed, with the workers turned into carbon. All that was left of them was their burned bodies, and we had a hand in doing that.

“The extraordinary thing is that the government are behaving in two different ways: they are providing humanitarian aid, which we do very well—the government should be congratulated on their record of maintaining the 0.7 per cent aid budget — but, on the other hand, they are feeding the war machine that is causing death and creating refugees.”

Recent reports by The Independent found that the UK sells arms to 19 of the 23 countries in the world that use child soldiers or commit grave violations against children.

SNP MP Dr Lisa Cameron said: “There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. People may not be aware of it, but 40 per cent of all child soldiers are girls, who are often used as wives—in other words, sex slaves—for male combatants. Many rebel groups use child soldiers to fight governments, but some governments also use child soldiers in armed conflicts.”

“It is crucial to support humanitarian efforts and ensure that arms are not sold directly or indirectly to countries or regimes that deploy child soldiers,” Cameron added.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade - which supports a transition towards a pro-peace economy - has also advocated arms embargoes on countries involved in human rights abusing, including the case of Israel’s bombings of Gaza.

MP for Cardiff Cental, Jo Stevens, spoke out in favour of the campaign: “The Israeli assault on Gaza in July and August 2014, in which 2,205 Palestinians were killed, including 521 children, is only the most recent example of the Israeli government’s indiscriminate acts of violence against the Palestinian people, but the United Kingdom continues to treat Israel’s defiance of international law as, at best, an inconvenient detail to be worked around when making decisions on arms trade control.”

Stevens continued: “I ask the government — please — to refuse all of the export licences to Israel, directly or via a third country, where the end user is the Israel defence forces or military industry; to revoke any extant export licences to Israel, directly or via a third country, where the end user is the Israel defence forces or military industry; ban arms imports from Israel; and ban collaborations between UK-based companies and the Israel defence forces or Israeli military industry. We must end our shameful complicity in Israel’s continuing violations of human rights and international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

However, the largest recipient of UK arms exports is the Gulf dictatorship of Saudi Arabia.

Margaret Ferrier SNP MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West highlighted the ongoing case of 17 year old political activist Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is set to be crucified for his political campaigning.

Ferrier said: “Ali is but one of countless examples of Saudis falling foul of the ruthlessly relentless regime. While human life holds little or no value to the Saudi establishment, our own government seemingly place a high value on the arms business.

“Saudi is one of the largest arms export markets, worth billions of pounds to our Exchequer: blood money that the UK Government are happy to take. We supply weapons and ammunition. We deliver military aircraft and we help to train Saudi personnel. We even co-operate with the military action. Saudi is leading the coalition that is bombing Yemen, killing and maiming many civilians as well as destroying their homes. This is being done, with the apparent blessing of the UK, using arms purchased from us.”

Tobias Ellwood, parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, defending the UK Government’s record of arms exports.

Ellwood argued that selling arms presents an opportunity to be “frank” and build relationships with abuses regimes.

In the case of Bahrain, he said: “Bahrain is a great example of where that allows us to be frank and up front about human rights concerns. I will write to [Tania Mathias MP] with the detail on how our experts are working with the Bahraini government to improve human rights. That is welcome, and we can do it and be frank with them because we have built up that relationship.”

For the past week CAAT campaigners have attempted to block the DSEI arms fair in East London.

Dr Tania Mathias, the Conservative MP for Twickenham, commented in the debate: “As Amnesty has reported, shockingly, companies at the 2013 arms fair were selling cluster bombs and equipment for torture. I am not reassured that this year’s arms fair will not involve the sale of cluster bombs, torture equipment, depleted uranium, phosphorous or other items that I do not believe to be ethical, which no Londoner would wish to have sold in this area.”

Over £5bn worth of arms were sold to human rights-abusing countries from the UK, according to the 2013-14 parliamentary investigation.

Your leader on Yemen’s forgotten and brutal conflict is very welcome (Editorial, 14 September). You are right to highlight the scandal of “western complacency and silence”, but the reality is much worse. While generously giving aid on the one hand, the UK is fuelling this bitter conflict by selling arms and giving technical support to a Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen in full knowledge of the risk of potential war crimes. Since the conflict escalated in March the UK has issued 37 arms export licences for arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. The government has declined to tell parliament the details of these deals. It justifies the continued fuelling of the crisis on the grounds it has assurances from the Saudi government that its bombing campaign is in accordance with international law.
In December, the government adopted in law the UN’s arms trade treaty, which binds governments to stop arms transfers if there is a risk of breaches of international humanitarian law or human rights law. There is ample and credible evidence that all sides – including the Houthis the Saudis are fighting – have failed to distinguish adequately between combatants and civilians. The UK boasts that it has “one of the most rigorous and transparent export control regimes in the world”. If this really is the case, the government needs to immediately suspend all arms transfers to the conflict and launch an investigation into how these weapons have been used.

Penny Lawrence
Deputy chief executive, Oxfam

You’re right to say that “there must be a preparedness to name, shame and restrain those who are conducting atrocities against civilians in Yemen”. These catastrophic onslaughts, which arguably employ starvation as a weapon, leave no doubt that efforts to impose restraint must be the priority. The suffering of civilians dictates that the US must stem its supplies of arms to Saudi Arabia, and in particular take any measures that will lead to a cessation of the Saudi bombing campaign, which is inflicting such terrible bloodshed on non-combatants.
The UK also appears to be complicit. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s biggest weapons exports customer. In July, defence minister Frederick Curzon said Britain had provided the country with technical support and precision-guided weapons, and confirmed the presence of British personnel at the Saudi and coalition air and maritime headquarters. At the same time, how cockeyed it is that, the UK having approved £4bn worth of weapons sales to Riyadh in the five years to May 2015, an unspecified number of Britons are based in Bahrain, according to a statement later in July by armed forces minister Penny Mordaunt, “to help ease the flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen”.

Patrick O’Brien

Yemen and the scandal of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia Letters 17 September 2015

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