UPDATE: 8 September
Letter in today’s Guardian (8 September):
The government would do much better to raid the export credit guarantee scheme [rather than the overseas aid budget] and other subsidies to the arms trade. This would raise funds for refugee provision and reduce arms sales to Middle Eastern states, impacting directly on the latter’s ability to wage war on their and other populations in the region.
Benjamin Selwyn, Director, Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex
Last month, we wrote to John Glen MP asking that his government take a more robust line with the Saudi Arabian government in view of the large increase in executions and floggings, many of which are carried out in public. We noted that the French president Francois Holland had spoken publicly against the practice despite large arms sales in the offing. The British government has said it prefers to lobby in private and to pursue a policy of quiet diplomacy. By contrast, the Swedish government has ended arms exports to the country. As policies go, it is one which is conspicuous by its failure to achieve anything at all and in other contexts would be declared ‘not fit for purpose’.
A recently published report by Amnesty shows that Saudi Arabia is one the top three world executioners after China (which executes thousands but the statistics are a state secret) and Iran. Between January 1985 and June 2015, 2,208 were put to death. 102 have been executed in the first 6 months of 2015. Crimes include ‘witchcraft,’ ‘sorcery’ and ‘apostasy’. In some cases relatives are often not notified of the execution.
The FCO’s July in-year update on Saudi says:
We remain concerned about the continued use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, including the fact that trials and executions do not meet the minimum standards which the EU advocates in countries where the death penalty is applied. We regularly raise the issue with the Saudi authorities, bilaterally and through the EU, and will continue to do so. There has been a significant rise in the number of executions this year. While no official figures are published, according to statistics reported by NGOs over 100 people have been executed since 1 January. NGOs report that the majority of executions were for murder and drug-related offences
In response to our letter to Mr Glen, we received a letter from a FCO minister, Mr Tobias Ellwood, which assured us that the Foreign Office was doing all it could to end the practice and that ‘the abolition of the death penalty is a human rights priority for the UK’. The HMG Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty (2010 – 2015) states:
Promoting human rights and democracy is a priority for the UK. It is a long standing policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle (p2)
Within days of receiving this letter however, we discovered that it is no longer an explicit FCO policy. The new policy has dropped any reference to abolishing the death penalty. We also noted that Private Eye had a piece on the very same Mr Ellwood who had been a guest of the Saudi Government on a £6,000 fact-finding visit sponsored by a defence forum.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that defence sales matter far more than the dreadful human rights situation in countries like Saudi Arabia which – apart from public floggings and beheadings – tortures its citizens and has severe restrictions on the lives of its women. Saudi Arabia is the leading destination for UK arms sales amounting to £1.6bn in 2014.
Nicholas Gilby of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) reported on the high level of corruption in this industry:
This paper examines the Government’s approach to corruption within the UK arms industry and shows it has very dirty hands …
… civil servants told to ‘look the other way’ and not ask awkward questions.
Chemring, which has one of its factories just outside Salisbury, had sales to Saudi Arabia of £47.8m last year and £97.6m in 2013 (source: annual report).
UK governments have invested a lot into the arms trade. Support includes marketing support via DESO (Defence Exports Services Organisation); export credit guarantees; around £26m in R&D costs and something called ‘launch customer support’ which is buying weapons from a UK supplier even though overseas suppliers are cheaper. There are also missions by ministers and members of the Royal family to foreign countries like Saudi.
Could it be that the Foreign Office was embarrassed by such an explicit policy in the face of a rising tide of executions in countries such as Saudi Arabia; Pakistan and India, all countries where arms sales are important?
Successive governments have claimed a devotion to human rights and a commitment to end the death penalty. The reality it seems is that arms sales trump this commitment and in dropping the express statement of policy, the FCO is at least being honest.
Following the change of wording by the FCO which seemed to be in contradiction to the assurances given to us by the minister and Mr Glen, we wrote again asking why the policy had changed. We await a reply…