Arms sales and human rights

Arms sales dictating policy in Saudi Arabia

Readers of this blog will be familiar with our argument that oil and arms sales dictate our policy to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The execution of 47 people last week has caused an international outrage but not, predictably from our government.  Philip Luther of Amnesty said:

It is a bloody day when the Saudi Arabian authorities execute 47 people, some of whom were clearly sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials. Carrying out a death sentence when there are serious questions about the fairness of the trial is a monstrous and irreversible injustice. The Saudi Arabian authorities must heed the growing chorus of international criticism and put an end to their execution spree

A policy document published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2011 curiously omits mention of Saudi Arabia in its list of countries where diplomats will be seeking to ‘positively drive forward’ the government’s ultimate goal of abolishing the death penalty.  Countries such as China, the US, Iran and Belarus are among those listed, but not Saudi Arabia.

Philip Hammond the Defence Secretary said HMG was ‘disappointed’ in the actions of the Saudi authorities.  Disappointment seems to be a rather limp response to make to such an appalling act.  It was Mr Ellwood who responded to our message to John Glen MP last year in which we asked for a more robust response to the Saudi government.  Both he and Mr Glen assured us that these matters were being pursued but as the revelations keep appearing – altering the Ministerial code; dropping the death penalty abolition as a specific policy, and now the omission of Saudi from the list of countries to be targeted – we see that it is devoid of real intent.

Many human rights organisations have criticised the executions and the craven stance taken by the UK government.  Maya Foa of Reprieve said:

Saudi Arabia has consistently ranked in the world’s top five executioners, and a large proportion of beheadings carried out in the country have been for non-violent offences, including protest.

It is shocking that the Kingdom was absent from the counties targeted by the UK’s death penalty strategy over the past five years, when every other major executioner in the world – China, Iran, Iraq, the US and Pakistan – was included.

Amnesty said the omission was ‘astonishing’.

Does it matter?

Why does this matter?  Firstly, the middle east is fraught with much violence and tension.  Ministers – including the Prime minister – fulminate about the terrible events in the area controlled by IS but are noticeably reticent oven similar violence in Saudi.  Imagine the Prime Minister commenting on the latest gruesome execution IS video and saying it was ‘disappointing’.  By continuing to supply arms we are both helping to support the violence in the area and also aiding the bombing of neighbouring Yemen where women and children are dying.  Our policy should primarily be about seeking peaceful resolutions to problems not trying to sell yet more arms.

Eurofighter of the type sold to Saudi ArabiaSecondly, by being so dependent on arms sales, this becomes the main driver of our policy.  Not what is best for the region, or the people of the Saudi regime, or human rights, but what effect will it have on the bottom line of BAE Systems.  Our actions also lend them credibility.  Instead of applying pressure to encourage a more civilised approach to the Shia minority, to the rights of women and to foreign workers, we arrange for a Saudi to be elected onto the UN’s Human Rights Council and express ‘disappointment’ at mass executions.

We also lay ourselves open to charges of hypocrisy.  In seeking to promote civilised conduct around the world, to end the death penalty and stamp out torture, our approach to Saudi is both inconsistent and craven.  It weakens our international voice.

Malcolm Rifkind was interviewed on the radio and his argument was that the Saudis provide us with valuable intelligence.  Is the argument that we tolerate shocking behaviour so that – it is claimed – we get some intelligence?  This seems rather thin since no doubt the Saudis receive comparable intelligence from us.

The arms sales tail seems to wag the policy dog and by our actions we are not helping the Kingdom to adapt to the modern world.

If you agree with us that this approach to the Saudi government is neither good policy nor satisfactory for those who are killed by weapons supplied by the UK, then you can join us or write to our MP John Glen.

No to the death penalty


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