Congress votes to end military aid to Saudi

In our last post two days ago, we highlighted the Dispatches programme which described in graphic detail the role our weapons supplies were having in Yemen.  The Saudis, using jets supplied by us, were creating suffering on an almost unimaginable scale with tens of thousands of deaths, a cholera outbreak and starvation of its people.

Today, 4 April 2019, the US Congress has voted 247 to 155 to end military aid to Saudi Arabia.  Further votes are planned to stop weapons supplies as well.  It is expected that President Trump will veto the actions but nevertheless, it sends a strong message of what Americans think of this terrible regime and its countries continuing military support for it.

This puts the UK in a tricky position.  A chief ally stepping back leaves this country somewhat exposed.  We shall have to see over the coming days what feeble excuses are trotted out to justify our support and role in the killing.

Sources: The Nation, Washington Post, the Guardian

 

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Channel 4 Dispatches programme shows Britain’s involvement in this terrible war

On Monday 1 April 2019, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme showed some terrible scenes from the war in Yemen and the death and destruction which is taking place.  The war has resulted in considerable misery for thousands of civilians and the programme reported that around 55,000 children under 5 have died from malnutrition as a result.

They focused on a bus which containing school children which was bombed in a market place killing 40.  They were able to find a young survivor who had suffered shrapnel wounds but was lucky to have escaped with his life.  He was understandably still traumatised.

Britain – as we have noted in this blog many times before – is a key supplier of weapons and the main supplier is BAE Systems who sell the Typhoon fighter jet.  It is these jets, along with those supplied by the Americans, which are used to bomb Yemen and in particular, schools, mosques and hospitals.

In addition to supplying jets and munitions, the programme revealed that 6,000 BAE staff were working there involved in the crucial business of keeping the jets flying.  They managed to excuse their activities by claiming that because they do not actually handle the weapons – the final 5% as someone put it – therefore they were not mercenaries.  They also reported that British military personnel (which we know to be from the RAF) were also involved.

A great deal of time was spent interviewing various individuals concerning the ethics of supplying weapons – especially jets and their rockets – which are used by the Royal Saudi Air Force to cause such misery.

‘Dancing with the Devil is sometimes worth it’ former Air Vice-Marshall Sean Bell

One person interviewed was former Air vice-Marshall Sean Bell who argued that if we were not involved it could be a whole lot worse.  This seemed to be based on the notion that we were in some way moderating the Saudi activities which seemed a weak argument especially in the light of the rest of the programme.  He said ‘dancing with the devil is sometimes worth it’ because of the influence it gives us, not just with the Saudis but also in the Middle East generally.  Our involvement and dependence on Saudi arms sales was featured in a Channel 4 news item with Bell.  A Twitter feed on this topic can be found at @c4dispatches.

The British government has also been engaged in some dubious thinking based also on the notion of influence.  The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP said in the House of Commons:

Because of our commercial relations with Saudi Arabia we are actively monitoring their compliance with International Human Rights law and we have a lot of contact with them […] We raise concerns with them if we think things are going wrong.  Clip from the Dispatches programme

This concept of maintaining contact so that we can exert influence took a knock in the programme because it was revealed we have in fact next to no influence.  Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that attempts to hold back the Saudis seemed ineffectual since their attitude was to ‘act quickly and ask questions later.’

Further damage to the notion of influence was evidence from an American official sent to investigate after the school atrocity.  It seems our personnel were ‘not where it mattered’ [in the control room that is] but that there was a separate floor where the operations were actually being directed.  More damagingly, most of the strikes are not in fact controlled from Riyadh but are what are called ‘dynamic strikes’ conducted by SRAF pilots without reference to the control room.  They do not have in their cockpits the vital information about which targets are safe to be hit.

Conclusions

Britain’s involvement in this war is calamitous for the country itself and our influence and reputation.  We can hardly complain about Russia’s activities in Syria when we are only one remove from doing the same in Yemen.  Because sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is so important and lucrative, we are not in a position to end it without significant damage to our balance of payments.  The only beneficiary of this trade are the shareholders of BAE Systems and other arms firms and dealers.  The losers are of course the 60,000 dead in Yemen.

In addition to the use of our weapons in this terrible war, is the fact that we have given support to this regime, a regime which systematically uses torture and has closed down any form of dissent and freedom of speech.  Again the arguments are about our ‘influence’ which seems to be all but invisible.  Members of the royal family are regularly rolled out to visit and add a veneer of respectability to the Saudi royals.

When Mohammad bin Salman assumed power the talk was of a reforming monarch.  This disintegrated following the Khashoggi murder and more arrests of human rights activists.

The final word should perhaps go to Andrew Mitchell MP, interviewed on the programme, who said:

History will judge it as an appalling failure of British foreign policy

 


F1 race to go ahead despite widespread human rights infringements in Bahrain

All you need to know about Halo ahead of the 2018 F1 seasonSport is being used more and more to present a sanitised view of a country and to hide or obscure human rights abuses.  Russia with the Olympics and Qatar with the World Cup are both examples of dubious regimes using sport to enhance their image.  In the case of FIFA there is the issue of massive corruption within the organisation itself.

The latest example is Formula 1 and the race to take place in Bahrain.  The country has scant regard for human rights.  Arrests, unfair trials, the use of torture are all commonplace.  In 2017 the last newspaper was closed down.  In a previous blog, we highlighted a local firm in Porton (a village near Salisbury, UK) which supplies spyware to this regime.

As the US State Dept. said in a report on the country in 2017:

The most significant human rights issues [in Bahrain] included reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces; allegations of torture of detainees and prisoners; harsh and potentially life-threatening conditions of detention; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including by the press and via the internet; restriction of academic and cultural events; restrictions on the rights of association and assembly; allegations of restrictions on freedom of movement, including arbitrary citizenship revocation; and limits on Shia political participation.

Further examples of abuse of human rights can be found in a Human Rights Watch report.  Amnesty international has also produced a report saying similar things.

The F1 site itself claims to respect human rights issues in its policy;

  1.  The Formula 1 companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally.

The problem is they do not.  Before races there is a severe clampdown in the area and protestors can be shot.  The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy is one of 15 human rights organisations to have written to F1 president Jean Todt calling on them to act in the case of Najah Yusuf who was imprisoned last year for criticising the regime on Facebook.  The response yesterday is not encouraging:

It’s quite easy,” he said. “We are here for a sport event, not for a political event. That means – first of all, I was surprised that there are still some political turmoil which I don’t think is the reality.

I think that the reality is just that a few people want to create troubles and Formula One is here to make sport, to entertain the people.  We should not be involved in any political questions.  This, people should do, who are here, who are living here. The government, whoever, that’s their job, not our job.  [Statement 30 March 2019, Our italics]

Which rather conflicts with its policy statement above.  It seems as though nothing a country does can stop the likes of F1 or other sporting regimes from carrying on their activities in a country with dubious or dire human rights.  As long as the money’s right …


The following letter from our chair was published in the Salisbury Journal

MOTHER’S Day is around the corner and many people are buying cards and flowers, planning visits and days out with their mothers, and generally making this a special day.
This Mother’s Day we’re [Amnesty International] asking readers to spare a thought for one particular mother – Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker who’s already spent three years in an Iranian jail after a deeply unfair trial.

For three long years Nazanin has been separated from her young daughter Gabriella, who only gets to see her mother on short prison visits in Tehran.

Recently, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the Government was giving Nazanin “diplomatic protection” status, meaning her case is now officially considered to be the cause of a formal dispute between our country and Iran.

This is welcome. It means the UK is taking her plight seriously and is committing itself to using all its international influence to gain her freedom.  Readers can show their support for Nazanin by adding their name to our petition – amnesty.org.uk/nazanin – to the Iranian authorities calling for her release.

Andrew Hemming
Chair, Amnesty International, Salisbury branch

 

Refugee vigil

Posted: March 24, 2019 in Group news, refugees
Tags: , ,

UPDATE:

We were filmed by Salisbury TV (Channel 7 in this area) and they say they will transmit at 6pm this evening.

We shall be holding a vigil for refugees today (Monday 25th) starting at 10am for 2 hours.  Outside the Guildhall in the market square.  We would be grateful for any supporters able to spare a minute or two to drop by.

Refugee factsheet (pdf)


Observer publishes article about use of spyware

Today’s (17 March 2019) UK Observer newspaper published a story about the use of spyware around the world and in particular by countries known for their poor human rights record.  These include Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Readers of this blog will know that this has been going on for some time and a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab has been compiling evidence of this activity and publishes reports of the use of spyware around the world.  Other organisations like Privacy International are also concerned.

What the Observer article reveals is the scale of the UK’s exports which have amounted to £75m since 2015.  Human Rights groups are concerned at this trade since it enables authoritarian governments to penetrate the devices of anyone it doesn’t like and gather information at will from their equipment.   The equipment is capable of intercepting email, instant messaging and VoIP communications, as well as spying on users through webcams and microphones and transmitting the data to a command-and-control server.

In addition to the scale of trade, is the issue of secrecy and attempts to get details of what and who is being supplied from Department of International Trade using FOI are largely fruitless.  The concern is that what matters is trade and not the purposes to which the equipment is put.

Part of the units occupied by Gamma in Porton

Porton Business Centre

This is of interest in the Salisbury area because one of the firms which manufactures this equipment called Finspy is a firm called GammaTSE based in the village of Porton not far from the city (and not far from Porton Down, the chemical weapons centre – the same Porton).  A report by the University of Toronto in 2013 found Finspy installed in 36 countries.  The firm’s website coyly describes its service thus;

GammaTSE has been supplying government agencies worldwide with turnkey surveillance projects since the 1990s.  GammaTSE manufactures highly specialized surveillance vehicles and integrated surveillance systems, helping government agencies collect data and communicate it to key decision-makers for timely decisions to be made.

An earlier post described the firm’s activities in more detail.  The UK is therefore heavily involved in a trade which allows governments to intercept messages of human rights activists, opposition members, journalists and more or less anyone it does not like.

 

 


Market stall planned for 8 June*

We are planning on holding a market stall on Saturday 8 June in the market square in Salisbury starting early.

Stall in 2018

Members and supporters are invited to bring items for sale please.  Wanted are clothes, plants, hardback books, china and pottery, DVDs and CDs.  Old tools are popular too.  Regrettably, we do not want electrical items, paperback novels (except Penguins), or VHS videos.

If you cannot come in person, please give one or other of us a call (a message on this site will do) and we can arrange collection.

 

 

*formal agreement from SCC awaited


The group will be holding a brief vigil outside the Guildhall on Monday 25th March starting at 10am for 2 hours.  Refugees are a contentious issue in this country and indeed, concerns about immigrants and refugees were a key issue in the Brexit debate.  Although the UK takes in a miniscule number compared to the 25 million or so refugees in the world, they loom large in our political process and in the tabloid press.  Biblical terms like ‘swarms’, ‘hordes’ and ‘floods’ are regularly deployed to describe those fleeing here.

Protest guildhall

Some group members at the Guildhall

We would welcome any support you can give even if it’s just to come and say ‘hello’.  We sometimes feel a little exposed at these events and there are some people who have forcefully held views so shows or support are welcome.

This would also be a good moment if you are thinking of joining the group to make yourself known.  The picture shows a similar event last year.


The minutes of the group meeting in March 2019 are available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  A full meeting with several events planned, see the end of them for the list.  You can also follow us on Facebook,  Twitter and Tumblr.

March minutes (Word)


Attached is the monthly death penalty report prepared with thanks by group member Lesley.  It covers Egypt; Pakistan, India, Belarus and the USA.  Note, as always, that China does not feature as its death penalty statistics are a state secret.  They are believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

January – February report (Word)

No to the death penalty