Posts Tagged ‘Arms trade’


UK continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia

The war in Yemen continues and the death toll continues to rise.  The UN estimates around half a million people have cholera.  They also estimate around two thirds of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance.  Yet the UK continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia and half our arms exports go to the country.

The supply of arms is monitored by the Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) yet bizarrely, at its most recent meeting, it did not have the supply of weapons to Saudi on the agenda presumably because it has become too sensitive a subject.

There are many worries about arms sales and in particular the use of what are called ‘open licences’.  There are also concerns about brass plate companies which are often fronts for brokers.  Control Arms UK has submitted evidence to CAEC suggesting that the number of licences has increased by 17% in one year.  It is not possible to determine what items are sold under this secretive open licence system since it can be a small item of equipment or a jet fighter.  The Government must demonstrate that companies using open licences are subjected to proportionately rigorous and frequent compliance audits.  We are ‘most dissatisfied at the Government’s admission that no such audits are ever carried out in respect of UK companies’ operations overseas’ (our italics).

Detailed work by researchers suggests that civilian casualties are running at a far higher level than those documented by the UN. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), at least 56,000 civilians were killed between January 2016 and October 2018.  They estimate that from March 2015 to the end of 2018, the number of civilian deaths related to combat could be as high as 80,000.  This does not include deaths resulting from disease or malnutrition.

Not only did the select committee not discuss Yemen, but the chair of the committee, Graham Jones MP (Lab) launched an extraordinary attack on the various organisations reporting on what is happening in that country.  He accused them of being ‘dishonest’ in their reporting.  They were guilty of ‘gross exaggeration’ of what has happened.  Much of their evidence was false he said.  It was ‘disgraceful how NGOs and loony left organisations have refused to back the UN’s unanimous position’.  He denied that the problems there were an airstrike problem but were as a result of economic mismanagement.

His view is that the fault lies with the Houthis and he is in support of the Saudi’s actions there.  He was to be seen with Price Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the UK.

The misery in Yemen continues and the government continues to allow the supply of weapons causing huge damage to the country.  While the number of air attacks has diminished in 2018, the proportion of those attacks striking clearly civilian targets rose, while attacks on clear military targets fell according to Control Arms.  They report that of the 3,362 air raids in Yemen in 2018:

 420 air raids hit residential areas
 231 hit farms
 133 hit transport infrastructure
 95 hit civilian vehicles and buses[5]
 31 hit educational facilities (schools, institutes, universities, etc.)

Other targets included market places, mosques and medical facilities.

It seems unlikely that the situation will improve although peace talks are continuing. It is disappointing that the chair of the relevant Commons committee should voice opinions which suggest he is less than impartial.  Undoubtedly, NGOs and other organisations make errors in reporting on the situation in Yemen but to suggest that it is all a gross exaggeration is not justified.  Our involvement in the bombing campaign and the extent of our arms supplies is unconscionable and is fueling the conflict.

 

 

 

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Peace talks in Sweden offer slender hope for peace in Yemen

We have be writing blogs about the war in Yemen for over three years now going back to the time when it was referred to as the ‘forgotten war’.  The group wrote to our local MP to raise concerns about war crimes and we received the usual bland reply from a FCO Minister Tobias Ellwood and a covering note from Mr Glen saying:

However, the government recognises that its abolition is not a matter of mere legal reform but would require a seismic societal shift.  It has therefore taken an approach which it feels is most constructive – engaging behind the scenes rather than inflaming the situation and triggering a backlash through outspoken public critique.

Mr John Glen MP, July 2015

This ‘behind the scenes engagement’ has not yielded anything of any value and indeed, while the slaughter has increased, British arms sales have also increased adding to the misery of this country.  It is now estimated over 10,000 have been killed, over 3 million have had to flee their homes and nearly 14 million Yemenis are in fear of starvation.  

Over the past 3 years or so, we have reported on critical select committee reports, newspaper revelations about our involvement and trips by our royals, the Foreign Secretary and the prime minister to Saudi Arabia to help promote arms sales.  It was originally argued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that we had a tough regime to control arms sales to regimes where human rights were ignored.  The shear weight of evidence of violations by Saudi Arabia, both with its own citizens and in Yemen, makes this statement hollow. 

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written about the conflict in an article in the Guardian saying that the British government is complicit in the death of thousands in the war through its continued sale of arms.  He refers to a recently published Christian Aid report pointing to the absurd position our government is in, namely giving half our aid to states and regions affected by chronic violent conflict and at the same time, half our arms sales go to states where military force is used against its citizens.  As Dr Williams puts it:

It’s as if we are creating, or at least helping to maintain, the very conflicts whose terrible effects we then spend money of mitigating

Britain’s direct complicity in the war in Yemen must end.  Rowan Williams 14 December 2018 The Guardia

The CA report comments on the ambivalence – some might say hypocrisy – of the British government’s position:

The double standards are most stark in relation to the UK’s complicity in the conflict in Yemen.  On one hand, the UK is leading calls in the UN for a peace agreement, and is the leading financial supporter of humanitarian aid to Yemenis and the UN Special Envoy’s peace-making endeavours.  On the other, it is promoting significant new arms sales to the government of Saudi Arabia and actively supporting military operations of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen.  This has included attacks that may amount to war crimes.

Christian Aid: For Yemen’s sake: stop selling arms, 13 December, 2018

As events in Yemen got worse and the death toll rose, Britain actually increased its sale of arms to Saudi according to a Sky News report.  Despite credible reports of bombing of civilian facilities including schools, hospitals, weddings and funerals, we went on with our arms sales and provided RAF personnel to advise the Saudis.  

The UK government is in something of a bind however.  The extent of our arms sales to the Saudis is such that scaling them back would be extremely difficult in terms of the economic impact on parts of the country which depend on them.  With Brexit looming – whatever the outcome – we will need all the business we can get.  Dr Williams’ plea to stop sales to certain countries is unlikely to receive more than a polite hearing therefore.  

This is a crucial moment for the UK as it looks to redefine its relationship with the EU and the wider world.  The UK Government, as one of the world’s largest aid donors, largest arms exporters and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is a global leader on war and peace.  There is much to celebrate about the UK’s role in aid and development, in responding to climate change, upholding principles of multilateralism, supporting the UN Peacebuilding Fund, and committing to 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) for aid.  Yet undermining these peacebuilding efforts are some stark double standards fuelling war instead.  Such as the fact the UK is currently on track to become one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, exporting the majority of its arms to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  If the UK Government is really committed to peace, Christian Aid calls on them to address these stark double standards and champion international law and peace in its foreign and aid policies. 

Christian Aid, ibid

We hope the peace deal agreed in Sweden will hold and yield results.  

Sources: 
The Guardian, CAAT, Sky News, Christian Aid, Amnesty International 

If you live in the Salisbury area, you would be welcome to join us. It is free to join the local group and the best thing is to keep an eye on this page, or Twitter or Facebook as you prefer, and come along to the next event and make yourself known.  



Is the situation with human rights around the world in terminal decline?

The title of this piece ‘What’s it got to do with us?’ was said at a signing in Salisbury by someone invited to sign a card for a prisoner of conscience.  She did not sign.  Of course, anyone involved in any kind of street signing will have come across this kind of response from people who are not persuaded there is any point in sending such cards and who do not think someone in prison in a foreign country has anything to do with us anyway.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was done following the second world war and with the formation of the United Nations itself was part of a belief that there had to be a better way for countries to organise their affairs.  Although there was a desire for such a better way, it would be a mistake to overlook the difficulties in negotiations to get UNDHR agreed.  The colonial powers – principally UK and France – had worries about what was happening in their colonies.  They were reluctant to see rights being applied there especially in view of the brutal suppression of freedom movements.  Nevertheless, it was signed and it did usher in a new world order.

Looking at the world today however, does not lead us to believe that we are on an improving trend.  It is hard to select from a series of terrible events to illustrate the point.  The suppression of free speech and the arrest of thousands of journalists and academics in Turkey is one example of many elements of the declaration being ignored.  Syria, which has seen thousands die from bombing and the use of gas, is another example, this time by a member of the UN Security Council itself, namely Russia.  In China, vast internment camps established in Xinjiang to detain hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and the arrest of human rights lawyers has been detailed in a UN report.  As Human Rights Watch expresses it:

The broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi Jinping took power five years ago showed no sign of abating in 2017.  The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard in July highlighted the Chinese government’s deepening contempt for rights.  The near future for human rights appears grim, especially as Xi is expected to remain in power at least until 2022.  Foreign governments did little in 2017 to push back against China’s worsening rights record at home and abroad.  World Report, 2018 [accessed 18 November 2018]

In Yemen, which this site has featured in a number of blogs, has seen a country taken to edge of viable existence by a campaign of bombing by Saudi Arabia and atrocities by the Houthis.  The Saudis have been supported by arms from the UK, France and the USA.  British RAF personnel are supposedly advising the Saudis.  The point here is not just the misery inflicted on the country but that schools, hospitals, weddings and other community events have been targeted in the bombing campaign.

Seventy years after the signing of the Declaration, we should be celebrating steady improvements across the world.  We are not.  Rights and freedoms are routinely violated in many countries around the world.  Torture is still widely practised by the majority of countries: countries that have signed up not to use it.   Even countries like the UK have been found shamefully outsourcing its use of this abhorrent practice to Libya.

We could go on listing wars, the displacing of millions including the Rohingya from Burma, the continuing scourge of slavery which is probably at a higher level today than during the triangular trade, and the murder of journalists in countries like Russia.

Here in Salisbury we have seen the brazen Novichok attack on the Skripals by what seems, beyond doubt, to have been Russian GRU agents.  In Turkey there has been the murder and probable dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.  None of this kind of activity is new – the CIA have been involved in murders and coups especially in South America – but that we have become inured to it.  To turn on the news is to witness war, misery, tides of refugees fleeing persecution or war, stricken cities and starving peoples.   There is a distinct feeling that the international rules based order ushered in after the second world war, now seems to be crumbling.  Famines in the ’80s and ’90s in Ethiopia and Somalia resulted in huge humanitarian efforts and the British public were moved by the scenes and reportage from the area.  Considerable sums were collected to help.  Today, we see the enormous damage and misery in Yemen but there is no sense of national outrage.

Causes 

John Bew, in a New Statesman¹ article, argues that the events of 2007 and 2008 were an important factor.  This is part of the theme of Adam Tooze’s recent book Crashed: how a decade of financial crises changed the world².  Up until the crash, there was a feeling of ever increasing prosperity (for some at least) and that free market ideology had won the day.  The crash destroyed that belief and importantly, ordinary people, not especially steeped in economic thought, began to realise that things were not right.  There was also a shift in power eastwards towards China and away from the west.  With it, the assumptions of democracy, free trade, and a rules based order had been weakened.  With the increasing interconnectedness of the world order and global trade, the ability of societies to deal with the ‘left behinds’ diminished.

With this decline, countries like the UK needed to work harder to sell goods to pay their way in the world.  That often meant looking the other way when we sold arms to unsavoury regimes.  ‘If we do not sell them, the Chinese will’ was a common belief.  Although the UK government often proclaims that we have a tough regime for arms control, the fact remains that brokers and dealers frequently and all too easily circumvent them.

The architects of the new world order after WW2 were the victorious powers: USA, China, Russia, UK and France.  These are the biggest seller of arms today joined perhaps by Israel and Germany.  The very countries wanting to achieve peace in the world are those busy selling the means to destroy it.

As the Amnesty annual report puts it:

In 2017, the world witnessed a rollback of human rights.  Signs of a regression were everywhere.  Across the world governments continued to clampdown on the rights to protest, and women’s rights took a nosedive in the USA, Russia and Poland.
From Venezuela to Tunisia, we witnessed the growth of a formidable social discontent, as people were denied access to their fundamental human rights to food, clean water, healthcare and shelter.
And from the US to the European Union and Australia, leaders of wealthy countries continued to approach the global refugee crisis with outright callousness, regarding refugees not as human beings with rights but as problems to be deflected.
In this climate, state-sponsored hate threatens to normalise discrimination against minority groups.  Xenophobic slogans at a nationalist march in Warsaw, Poland and sweeping crackdowns on LGBTI communities from Chechnya to Egypt showed how the open advocacy of intolerance is increasing.  Annual Report 2017/18 [extract]

Prospects

The prospects for human rights around the world look grim.  The idea of a steady improvement around the world does not look promising.  The belief in a new world order following the war also looks rather thin and forlorn.  With the major countries, who should be setting an example but are not doing so, the chance of improvement in the future does not look great.

In the UK, the are some in government who would like to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book to be replaced by a weakened bill yet to be published.  If that ever sees the light of day we shall be campaigning against it.

There is also the problem of compassion fatigue.  No sooner does one calamity – whether man made or natural – disappear from our screens, than another one appears.  There seems no time to recover between them.  It is perhaps not surprising that people feel a sense of hopelessness.  The scale of some events is so huge, the quarter of a million Rohingya forcibly displaced  for example, that any response seems puny by comparison.

But people who believe in human rights and their importance in the world continue the fight.  We continue to highlight as many examples of wrong doing as we can.  In the words of our founder ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

If you live in the Salisbury area we would welcoming you joining us.  Events are posted here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages – salisburyai


  1. Revenge of the Nation State, 9-15 November 2018
  2. Adam Tooze, published by Alan Lane 2018

Executions and torture still continuing in Saudi Arabia

The number of executions in Saudi Arabia is rising and we are gravely concerned for the people on death row there. The authorities have executed 52 people this year already, and nearly 600 since 2014.

Right now, eighteen young people could be beheaded at any time for the ‘crime’ of protesting against the Saudi government.  Some were sentenced to death for attending protests when they were children.  All were brutally tortured.

The UK government continues to prioritize the sale of arms despite the manifest human rights abuses and the bombing of civilians in Yemen. 

Reprieve currently have a petition and if you have time to sign it, every little helps.


Parliament’s concerns are very partial

This week saw parliament reconvene and a major debate take place concerning the attack on chemical weapons facilities in Syria.  These attacks took place in a coordinated way by British, French and American forces and the reason for them was claimed to be the crossing of a ‘red line’ by Assad because of his use of chemical weapons in his latest attack.  This led to calls for parliament to be recalled and considerable debate about whether we should have joined in the bombing.  The Labour leader Jeremy Corbin called for a War Powers Act to be enacted to clarify when a prime minister could and could not engage in military actions.

The death and destruction in Syria is appalling.  The use of barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas has caused terrible damage and thousands of innocent citizens have been killed.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that over 217 thousand civilians have been killed; over 13 thousand have been tortured to death and over 27 thousand children have been killed.  Of those, 80% were killed by Syrian forces and 6% by Russians.  These figures have been broadly supported by the Syrian American Medical Society and White Helmets, an aid agency working in the country.  There has been universal condemnation including by the UN’s Secretary General.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, another conflict is underway also causing considerable death and destruction.  As we noted in an earlier post, thousands have died, cholera is widespread, and the country is being steadily bombed back to the stone age.  Millions have been displaced and medical and other humanitarian supplies are prevented from entering the country because of a blockade.  There has not however been much in the way of outrage from parliamentarians about this and no calls to recall parliament.

Another key difference is while Assad is treated as a pariah, the Saudis who are carrying out the Bin Salman sits flanked by Theresa may and Boris John <figcaption> Boris Johnson and Theresa May rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi Crown Prince. c. Getty Images/Bloomberg </figcaption> </figure> son, with members of his entourage and other Government Ministers seated in rows behind bombing of Yemen – including schools, hospitals, civilian facilities and weddings – are feted in the UK, get to meet the Queen and receive visits by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.  This is because we are major suppliers of weapons to the regime.  RAF personnel are involved in some way helping the Saudis. (Picture: Campaign Against the Arms Trade)

It was claimed that the justification for the bombing of Syria was the crossing of the red line.  This suggested that Assad had used chemical weapons for the second time and we had to send a message to deter him.

One problem: it is not the first or even the second time he has done this.  The SNHR estimate that he has used them on 207 occasions and on 174 occasions since the Ghouta attack.

207 chemical weapons attacks by Assad

The very notion that a red line has been crossed is therefore not tenable as Assad has regularly used these weapons, on average three times a month.  In addition to chlorine he has on occasion used Sarin.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives or have lost loved ones in these terrible conflicts.  The destruction of buildings will take decades to do and billions to repair.  In one case we continue to profit from the supply of arms and roll out the red carpet to those who are responsible: in the other case we say a red line has been crossed – which it has on many, many occasions – and bomb the country.


The DSEI arms fair starts in London

This bi-annual event held in London receives a considerable amount of opposition and is a place for protest against the arms trade.  The description of the event by the organisers is blandness itself:

World leading event that brings together the global defence and security sectors to innovate and share knowledge.

It paints a picture of people coming together in some kind of seminar format to discuss defence issues as though it is a think-tank.  The reality is a little different as it is a place where all kinds of weapons manufacturers can display and secure deals to a wide range of countries who come to visit.  If it is as benign as the description implies one has to ask why organisations like Amnesty are denied access?  The purpose is to sell arms and to quote the organising company:

It’s a model that works well in the Middle East…There’s a lot of money being spent here in the UAE on homeland security technology, so it’s a good market in which to roll out our brand

Among the invitees are countries with highly dubious and questionable human rights records.  These include according to the guest list: Brunei, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE.  If we look at Bahrain in particular, a recent Amnesty report on the country published earlier this year concluded, inter alia:

Since June 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dramatically stepped up their crackdown on dissent. As a result, by June 2017, Bahrain’s formerly thriving civil society had found itself reduced to a few lone voices brave enough to speak out.  The majority of peaceful critics, whether they are human rights defenders or political activists, now feel the risk of doing so has become too high. Over the course of a year, the authorities increasingly resorted to a wide range of repressive tactics including arrest, harassment, threats, prosecution and imprisonment to silence peaceful critics.  Amnesty International’s research concludes that the security forces have even resorted to torturing or otherwise ill-treating human rights defenders, both men and women, a practice that has not been prevalent in Bahrain since the height of the crackdown that followed the 2011 uprising.

The report went onto to describe how Bahrain has backtracked on reform and noted that in the period June 2016 to June 2017, 169 critics or relatives have been arrested, summonsed, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel or threatened.  Freedom of expression is increasingly criminalised and the opposition party has in effect been dismantled.  The report was compiled after a large number of interviews were carried out including with 52 victims, 58 journalists, lawyers and others, and the investigation of 210 cases.

The British government has worked hard to promote our interests with Bahrain and a Daily Mail article in 2016 detailed the many links from the Queen down through the rest of the Royal Family.  Theresa May visited recently.

As far as the Arms fair DSEI itself is concerned, Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade which is helping to coordinate protests said:

DSEI will bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies.  Right now UK fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the destruction of Yemen; what will be the next atrocity they are used in?  War, repression and injustice are fuelled by events like DSEI.  It’s time to shut it down for good

DSEI was formerly part of the UK Trade and Industry Department but has now been moved to the newly formed Department for International Trade the minister of which is Liam Fox.

In an interview on the BBC today (11 September) Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, said “[the UK] sells too many arms to countries which abuse human rights.”

The guest list shows several firms with a Salisbury link who are exhibiting at this fair.  They include Babcock, Chemring’s, QinetiQ and Cubic.

The government has got itself into something of a fix over the question of arms sales.  Whilst claiming to have a strict code and robust procedures, the sale of arms to questionable regimes has increased.  Thousands of jobs now depend on this industry and with future problems likely to arise connected with our withdrawal from the EU, from an economic viewpoint we can ill afford to reduce sales of weapons.  It is thus on a treadmill requiring it to support the sale of weapons to a range of unsavoury regimes who in turn use these weapons to intimidate their own people or to cause suffering of neighbouring countries such as the bombing of Yemen by the Saudis.  It is also important to bear in mind that it is not just weapons that are involved but also security equipment.  Autocratic regimes are keen to keep tabs on their citizens and need all the techniques of surveillance to do so.  This kind of equipment, although not lethal of itself, does enable individuals to be monitored, watched and harassed.

The position is indefensible and some of the arguments echo those used by the slave trade in the nineteenth century where large numbers of jobs were involved in its continuation.


If you are keen to join us then come to the next event we are holding on 18 September and make yourself known.

 

 

 


The killing goes on

The news yesterday that the Metropolitan Police are looking into evidence of war crimes by the Saudis in the Yemen is encouraging.  It comes at a time when the prime minister, Theresa May is touring the middle East, including Saudi Arabia, in an effort to promote trade.  She is not alone as Liam Fox is in the Philippines with president Duterte and Mr Hammond is in India.   Mr Fox has received widespread condemnation having spoken of this country’s ‘shared values’ with a regime which has extra-judicially killed around 7,000 of its citizens as part of a war on drugs.

There has been a lot happening this week with the awful news of possible use of Sarin nerve agent in Syria allegedly by the Syrian government.

Starting with Yemen: the British government has authorised £3.2bn or arms sales to the Saudis a fair proportion of which have been used to bomb schools, hospitals and wedding ceremonies in Yemen.  The result has been a humanitarian disaster with nearly 10,000 killed and a million displaced.  RAF personnel are involved in the control room of the coalition although their direct involvement in the bombing is denied.  The Campaign Against the Arms Trade is currently pursuing a case against the government.

One would think that as we are selling arms to the Saudis to enable to continue the carnage in Yemen, that our politicians would be a circumspect in criticising others.  Yet both the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Theresa May were voluble in criticising Bashar Al-Assad for the terrible events in Syria seemingly oblivious to our own activities in Yemen.

Teresa May

The activities of the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the secretary for international trade have all been widely criticised by a wide range of commentators and organisations.  It is becoming increasingly clear that to promote the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ we are going to have to deal with a wide range of unsavoury regimes.  This means that any vestige of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ is long dead.  The emphasis is now on business with any country and few questions are asked about their human rights.

To take Saudi as an example.  In addition to its activities in Yemen, it is an autocratic regime, torture is routine, its treatment of minorities and women is deplorable and it executes people in public after highly dubious trials.  But to our government none of this matters and getting them to buy more arms and list their oil company, Aramco, on the London Stock Exchange are the real prizes.

These activities go to the heart of what we are as a nation.  The European Union, for all its faults and shortcomings, is a union of countries which believe in the rule of law, democracy and liberal values.  We want to leave this union and no sooner have we sent in the letter triggering our departure, than four of our senior politicians dash off to dubious regimes grubbing around for any deal they can get.  It is deeply shaming and added to which, they want to come out of the European Convention of Human Rights, the convention we were so instrumental in setting up.

It has quickly become clear that securing trade deals is now paramount, with no questions asked.  In defence of our turning a blind eye to the Saudi regime’s lack of human rights, the prime minister says the state is crucial in saving British lives by providing valuable intelligence information, an assertion impossible to prove and extremely convenient.  The abandonment of our British values is much lamented.  Paradoxically, one of the driving forces for leaving the EU was the desire to reassert British values.  The decision to leave seems to mean that we shall have to dump them quickly to enable us to trade with a range of disreputable regimes.

Economically it makes little sense as the amount of trade with these regimes is tiny in comparison to the EU.  From the moral point of view, it lowers our standing in the world and reduces our influence.  It sets a poor example to other countries wishing to promote their arms sales.


We would welcome anyone in the Salisbury area wishing to join us in our campaigns for better human rights.  The best thing is to come to one of our events and make yourself known.  Look on this site, on Twitter or Facebook for details of events.  We look forward to meeting you.


Good news on cluster bombs
Just before the Christmas holidays, the Government finally admitted that Saudi Arabia had indeed dropped UK cluster bombs in its bombing campaign in Yemen and in doing so, confirmed that our research was entirely correct.  When we alerted the UK government to this in May 2016, the Government strongly denied it, as did Saudi Arabia. This is a major victory for our research work and campaigning to keep the government under pressure on this issue. 

Amnesty joined with 100s of other organisations around the world to campaign to ban cluster bombs because of the risks they pose to civilians.  Cluster bombs scatter 100s of lethal bomblets that can continue to kill and cause horrific injuries long after the conflict has ended.  The UK rightly banned these horrific weapons and their use in Yemen provides yet more evidence of indiscriminate nature of the Saudi Arabian led coalition’s bombing campaign.

From Amnesty briefingcluster bombs


House of Commons debates the war in Yemen

On 12 January 2017 the House of Commons debated the war in Yemen for the second time in less than a month having already had a debate on it on 19 December.  This has been called the ‘forgotten war’ for some time since all the media and political attention has been focused on Syria.  So it is to be welcomed that this war is now getting its share of attention.  This was an opposition debate led by Stephen Twigg MP.

Results of bombing. Picture: Mintpress News

This is a complex war difficult to summarise but essentially the two main actors are the Saudis and the Houthi rebels.  Both have committed atrocities: the Houthis with massacres, the use of child soldiers and shelling across the border into Saudi territory.  The Saudis by bombing civilian targets and using cluster weapons.  The December debate focused on the use of these weapons, supplied by the UK before their use was banned.  One thing we learned from that debate was that the UK government has offered to exchange cluster weapons for more modern Paveway bombs but it appears the Saudis have not taken up this offer.

To an extent it is a proxy war: part of the long-running Sunni/Shia feud being fought between Iran and Saudi.  There are also tribal politics mixed in.  Although the role of the Houthi rebels was criticised, the point was made that it was we who were arming the Saudis and RAF personnel involved at the command and control centre.

It was lengthy running to just under 3 hours.  A number of points were made.  A major concern was the allegations of abuses against International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the slow pace of investigations  (‘glacial’ was the word used by Stephen Twigg) by the Saudis into them.  Various figures were bandied about but over a hundred seems to be the consensus but only 9 investigations have been carried out in 14 months.

There were many tributes to DFID and its contribution to Yemen but as Stephen Twigg noted:

There is a paradox at the heart of the UK’s approach to Yemen: generous on aid but we contribute to the conflict with our arms sales.

It is interesting that during the writing of this blog, the headline of the Mail on Sunday was the result of a survey which apparently revealed that 78% of people want to end overseas aid and put the funds into the health service which is experiencing a crisis at present.  The Coalition government and now the Conservatives must be praised for maintaining the levels of overseas aid despite considerable pressure from some of their backbenchers and some of the media.

Chris White MP – who is chair of the Arms Export Control Committee – said that the UK should be an example to the rest of the world in terms of our licensing regime.  He reminded the House of rule 2(c) which ‘forbids the authorisation of arms sales if there is a clear risk of a violation of international humanitarian law’.

Comments

It is of course welcome that the House of Commons should have given such time to this debate on Yemen – indeed as we’ve noted the second in less than a month.  The government has had something of a free ride, able to do little to end the conflict and carry on allowing our arms to be sold to Saudi – some £3.3bn worth so far.  It seemed to be SNP (Scottish National Party) members who were the most forthright in condemning the arms sales.  Tasmina Ahmend-Sheikh saying:

If Saudi Arabia and Iran are the puppeteers, we are the quartermasters

There were several calls for a peace process but one seems unlikely at present.  It was alleged that the Saudis are resisting the process, a claim denied by Tobias Ellwood the minister in FCO.

The link between our sale of arms and the devastating effects of those weapons on the people of Yemen although made, was not strongly emphasised.  Part of the problem of course is that although the Conservatives are in power now, many arms sales were made as well during the Labour administrations.  So both parties are tainted.

Tobias Ellwood MP

The government is in something of a bind.  The value of our exports to the region and to Saudi is considerable.  One is reminded of the old adage – variously attributed to John Maynard-Keynes or John Paul Getty –  that if you owe the bank a million pounds you have a problem, if you owe the bank a hundred million pounds, the bank has a problem.  Because billions of pounds of weapons are sold, we are not in a position to exert much control: we are too dependent on the business.   One can imagine polite words being spoken but it was clear from the debate that the Saudis think they can win this so are in no haste to agree peace terms and little more than token efforts are made to limit sales of arms.  Such is the murky world of arms sales anyway, that brokers can quite easily circumvent controls certainly for the more every day weapons.

In the December debate, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon insisted the Saudis were:

on the cusp of a major reform programme of its economy and society

The debate shone a light on the problems of the country and also on the pusillanimous nature of our foreign policy.  Speaker after speaker referred to the terrible state the country was in and the enormous distress of its residents as a result of the war.  It was interesting to note that at least two of the MPs said they were born there presumably from when it was known as Aden.  Worries were expressed about ISIS moving in.

But the fundamental moral issue of our sale of arms to a country which uses them to wreak such havoc on another nation was not rigorously pursued.  The FCO and the MoD would not be seriously disturbed by this debate.

It also provides a clue to life once we leave the EU.  There will be a major push to achieve business with whichever countries we can and the morality of our dealings will not get a look in.  It’s good for business they will say but not good for human rights.

The debate ended with calls for an urgent independent (ie not by the Saudis who are dragging their feet) investigation into reports of breaches of IHL on both sides of the conflict.

 


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Government plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights

The Conservative government has long disliked the European Convention and is now proposing to put withdrawal in the next manifesto.  This will be a serious mistake and will affect the human rights of many individuals in the UK.  It will also send a message to many other countries around the world whose record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired.

Theresa May MP. Picture: ibtimes

One of the problems with discussing this issue is that it is clouded by a programme of disinformation by the tabloid press.  Being a European creation it is damned by association.  It is also, in their eyes, a serious threat because it gives people some rights concerning privacy.  Since large parts of the British press are concerned with the private lives of celebrities and profit from such stories (which to be fair have an avid readership), anything which inhibits their ability to publish such material is going to harm profits.  There has thus been a continuous series of stories which rubbish the Human Rights Act and the European Convention (ECHR).  Small wonder therefore that politicians follow this line and brave it is for those few who stand up for the Act.

Theresa May has a particular animus against it and is famous for her fatuous remark about someone not being deported because of a cat.  “I’m not making this up” she famously said: only she was.  The person involved was a Bolivian who wasn’t an illegal immigrant anyway but was a student who had overstayed his visa.  At the tribunal and later at appeal, part of the evidence for his right to stay, was his relationship with a British woman, various other domestic matters, and their ownership of a cat.

A more serious case which caused Mrs May angst whilst at the Home Office was the case of Abu Qatada.  The Home Office spent many years trying to deport him and the HRA was blamed by her and the right wing media for being unable to do so.  In simple terms, he could not be deported because either he – or the witnesses against him – would be tortured by the Jordanian authorities.  He was eventually deported following diplomatic negotiations which led to Jordan agreeing to renounce torture.  It was never really explained during all the months of dispute about the need to deport him, why he was never put on trial here.

In a speech in April last year Theresa May (then Home Secretary) set out her reasons for wishing to depart from the ECHR:

[…] The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this. If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. (26 April 2016)

Almost every part of this paragraph is nonsense but one element is ‘[it] does nothing to change the attitude of governments like Russia’s’.  We have just seen the brutal activities of Russian forces in action in Syria and prior to that, in Ukraine and Chechnya.  Human rights in Russia are at a low ebb and the murder of opposition leaders and journalists a fairly frequent occurrence.  But Russia has been subject to the ECtHR for some years and something like half their judgements are against Russia, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine.  It is, in a small way, a civilising influence.  It has had an effect on their activities.

On the other hand there has been a miniscule number of judgements against the UK – 10 in 2012 for example.  Indeed if one looks at the statistics, between 1959 and 2015 there have been 525 judgements concerning the UK of which 305 decided that there was at least one violation.  That is 305 over a period of 56 years.  From all the sturm and drang in the media you would imagine it was at least ten times greater.

The chief worry is that if we – one of the founders of the European Court – pull out it will give the Russians the perfect excuse to do so as well.  One of the lawyers acting for the survivors of the Beslan massacre in Russia said:

It would be and excuse for our government to say we don’t want it either.  Putin would point at the UK straight away.  It would be a catastrophe.  [the UK] has to understand; we all live in the same world and we all have impact on one another.  (quoted in A Magna Carta for all Humanity by Francesca Klug, Routledge, 2015, p193)

At the end of the extract from Theresa May’s speech she goes on to say ‘if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the  EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.’   But what laws do we want to reform?  We still wait after more than five years for sight of the British Bill of Rights although it is still promised.

There are two aspects to the proposed withdrawal: internal and external.  Internally, it will reduce the rights of individuals in their claims against the state.  People like the Hillsborough survivors would never have succeeded in their quest for justice without article 2.  The parents of the Deepcut shooting would never have received justice without the ECHR.  On that subject, Theresa May also wants to remove the armed services from the act, a view echoed by the local MP for Devizes.

Behind all this anti-ECtHR rhetoric, are the assumptions that all EU rulings are wrong and that we have a superior and infallible legal system.  We do indeed enjoy a very good system – witness the low number of rulings against us by the European Court – but it is not perfect and judges have shown themselves to be too keen on supporting the establishment.  There is also the issue of sovereignty and a belief that it is only our parliament who should decide our laws.  The problem here is the weakness of parliament in challenging the executive.

Externally, it will send a harmful message to countries like Russia and Turkey where human rights are fragile.  It is astonishing to recall that it was a conservative, Sir Winston Churchill who was instrumental in forming the Convention.  Yet now it is the same conservatives who want to abolish it because, now and again, we fall foul of it and have to change our procedures or right a wrong.

Coming out of the European Convention would be a serious error and a backward step.  Our influence in the world would be diminished.  As a result of Brexit, we will be desperate to secure trade deals with whoever we can.  Such limited concerns as we do have for human rights will all but disappear in the rush to sign a deal.  Witness our activities in the Yemen where we are more concerned with selling £3bn of arms than we are with the results of the bombing.   In the UK, the ability of ordinary people to uphold their rights in every day situations will be diminished.


The local group hopes to campaign in favour of the Human Rights Act and related issues as when we get some details from government.  If you believe these matters are important, as we do, both for people’s rights in this country and our influence overseas, you would be welcome to join us.  Details will be here and on twitter and Facebook