In a previous post we mentioned the case of Anthony Joshua, the boxer and the fight which took place in Saudi Arabia for which he received a multi-million pound purse.
Human rights groups were critical of his decision to fight there and said it was an example of Sportswash: using sport to try and sanitise a dubious regime. In the case of Saudi this involves executions by beheading; floggings; imprisoning opposition people, lawyers and human rights workers as well as their appalling bombing activities in Yemen.
Lo and behold, within days of this happening and the criticism which it produced, Joshua turns up on the Graham Norton Show on the BBC. This is a show which features actors and celebrities of various kinds who come on to promote their activities and seemingly have a good time. Joshua came on to great acclaim and was variously embraced and fawned over by the other guests. Joshua himself said at the time of the fight that he did not know about Amnesty as he was too busy training but one suspects that Graham Norton, his producers and production team know and must have been aware of the furore surrounding his fight in Saudi. Not a word was said about this.
So what do we call this? Is it Sportswash? The BBC has come in for an increasing amount of criticism for bias and to some extent this is understandable during an election. This is not bias however, it is simply not wanting to see. No doubt his promoters or PR people want to rehabilitate Joshua’s reputation – which took a knock – and what better than to parade him on a lightweight entertainment show like Graham Norton where no awkward questions were asked. But why did the BBC agree to this? Did the other guests know he was coming on and were they not concerned? If they were they did not show it with lots of kisses, backslapping and embracing – typical activity when celebs come together. We do not know of course if other potential guests were sickened by his presence and declined the gig.
So have the BBC been used as part of a plan to rehabilitate Anthony Joshua’s reputation? Is what is happening in Yemen and Saudi of so little interest to the BBC that inviting this man on for our entertainment matters more than the suffering of people in those two countries?
The film Nae Pasaran is on this Wednesday 13th at the Arts Centre in Salisbury starting at 7:30 and tickets are available at £8.00 each. The film is set in Scotland. Details about the film can be seen here.
Good news today that the Court of Appeal has upheld the appeal by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade who are trying to stop the British government supplying lethal weapons to the Saudis who are using them to cause terrible death and destruction in Yemen.
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
The Court of Appeal has granted permission for Campaign Against the Arms Trade to appeal the legality of arms sales to Saudi Arabia
The destruction of Yemen continues and our role in that destruction becomes ever more clear as time passes. The case brought by CAAT failed and it is welcome news that the Appeal Court has allowed an appeal. The decision was profoundly flawed and needs to be challenged. It raised disturbing questions, not just about our role in the bombing of Yemen, but how our supposedly independent legal system operates in cases like this.
statements by the government were taken at face value despite claims that the case would be looked at objectively
the judges regarded evidence from NGOs as necessarily being of lesser value than the government’s arguments. They said they were ‘second hand’ despite the fact that the NGOs had representatives on the ground and had collected considerable first hand evidence of what was happening
the close relations the government has with the Saudi government (to which we could add many members of the Royal family) puts them in a good position, it was claimed, to take statements by the Saudis at face value namely that they were compliant with International Human Rights standards
the court took no account of the stake the government has in the trade namely that 46% of our arms exports are going to this country. That this might bias their case was not something that the judges seemed to consider. Indeed, they went further pointing to the ‘highly sophisticated, structured and multi-faceted process’ of government decision taking in comparison with that of the press and NGOs. Altogether, the judges exhibited an unduly deferential approach to the government
But perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of their judgement was the issue of ‘inference’. This argument centred on the idea that it was not necessary or practical for the government to infer that civilian causalities and breaches of IHL arose from the supply of weaponry to the Saudis. Because this destruction was taking place in another country, it was not practical for the Secretary of State to have access to all the relevant information. So on the one hand, the judges say that the government has a superior and sophisticated decision making process compared to that of the NGOs and media, but on the other hand, when civilians are killed, suddenly they are not in a position to know it was our weapons which were involved.
There are other criticisms of the judgment and the dubious logic on which it was based. Overall, they seemed to adopt a unduly deferential approach to the government’s position.
In another development the Committee on Arms Export Controls criticized many aspects of the government’s dealings with arms supplies to the region. One key aspect is the question of brokerage. This is where a company, registered in the UK, uses a broker to circumvent the controls on the sale of arms. The Committee concluded:
The Committees conclude that it is a significant loophole in UK arms export controls that a UK company can circumvent those controls by exporting military and dual–use goods using an overseas subsidiary. The Committees recommend that the Government states whether it will close this loophole, and, if so, by what means and in what timescale.
The Committees continue to conclude that it is most regrettable that the Government have still to take any action against “Brass Plate” arms exporting companies who have the benefit of UK company registration but carry out arms exporting and arms brokering activities overseas in contravention of UK Government policies. 35 The Committees’ Recommendation: The Committees again recommend that the Government sets out in its Response to this Report what steps it will take to discontinue the UK registration of such companies [Extracts from the Select Committee Report]
The government does not accept the committee’s conclusions on this matter.
Currently, the sale of arms is governed by the Arms Trade Treaty and the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. It is clear from the opinion of the sub committee, CAAT and other NGOs that the government is using every stratagem to sell arms to Saudi and to keep on doing so. Royalty and ministers are pressed into service to keep the Saudi regime sweet. The effects of our arms – and those of other arms suppliers such as the USA – on the people of Yemen has been devastating. With 10,000 deaths and many more thousands injured and displaced, it is a calamity on a massive scale. We must hope that the higher court will overturn the highly dubious and flawed decision.
Either way, it is likely that Brexit will lead to a reduction in the EU’s ability to promote its standards in the field of export controls internationally. […] If Brexit means the UK starts to water down its export controls in order to facilitate transfers to Saudi Arabia, or otherwise boost its arms exports, the implications may be more severe. Such a move could trigger a ‘race to the bottom’ among EU member states, many of which are seeking to boost their own arms exports in order to help domestic producers offset the impact of post-2008 national defence cuts.
Let us hope they are wrong. It is likely however that post Brexit, there will be a keen desire to secure trade deals – to include arms sales – with any foreign nation including those with poor human rights records.
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.
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.
A doctor working for Médicins sans Frontières shares her experiences of working in Yemen
Hella Hultin is a Swedish surgeon who is working for MSF in Yemen. In the current issue, she writes of her experiences of working in Khameeer in northern Yemen.
We were about to do an appendectomy on a girl, but my Yemeni colleague thought I might be tired after the long journey. So I sat in the operating room to watch. Suddenly both our phones rang. The voice on the other end was stressed asking me to come straight to the emergency room.
“Help! How do I get there?” I thought, while I quickly put on a white coat and hurried out, so fast the cats outside scattered in all directions. “Emergency?” I asked the attendant outside, and was pointed in the right direction.
When I arrived, the Emergency room was full of people, both patients and relatives. Many patients were being rolled in on stretchers from the ambulance entrance. I was told there had been an airstrike and more injured would be arriving soon. The injured were all covered in dust and dirt, and almost all had wounds from shrapnel. Several had fractures of the arms or legs, and some had burns on their face and hands.
A desperate husband was running around the room screaming. When I managed to get the interpreter to translate what he was saying, it turned out he was missing two of his children who had been caught up in the strike. It’s not hard to imagine his anxiety.
We got to work and ended up operating all night. We transferred two of the most seriously injured to a larger hospital for specialist treatment that we were unable to provide.
Hours later I made it to bed. As I lay down, it felt like I’d been there for weeks.
We do not know from this account the nature of the airstrike but there is no suggestion that those injured are military personnel. Accounts from people working inside Yemen are scarce as the Saudi’s have blockaded the country. Only a few journalists have managed to get in and there was a radio report last week of BBC’s Radio 4 news (limited time podcast).
Follow us on Twitter or Facebook, salisburyai. If you live in the Salisbury area and would like to join us you would be very welcome. Just keep and eye on this site or Facebook or twitter and come along to an event and make yourself known. It is free to join the local group.
The British high Court today handed down a deeply disappointing and some might argue astonishing decision that arms sales to the Saudi Arabians represents no risk to human rights law. The case was brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade CAAT and concerned the use of weapons sold to the Saudis and being used by them in the ‘forgotten war’ in Yemen.
We have in this blog been drawing attention to the terrible damage being done by the Saudis in Yemen who have used our weapons to bomb civilian targets in that country. These are not isolated incidents or accidents, but part of what seems to be a plan which has seen the bombing of hospitals, refugee camps, schools, wedding ceremonies and market places – indeed anywhere where civilians are likely to congregate. 10,000 have now died there and the country is in crisis. CNN has produced a short film (distressing please note) showing some of the dreadful effects of the war being waged.
Despite the considerable evidence that international human rights are being violated, that civilian targets are being targeted and banned UK produced BL-755 cluster munitions are being used, astonishingly the High Court ruled that:
The Secretary of State was ‘rationally entitled to conclude’ the coalition was not targeting civilians.
It further concluded:
Saudi Arabia was respecting humanitarian law and is in constructive dialogue with the UK about its processes and incidents of concern. There was no real risk that there might be serious violations of International Humanitarian Law.
A CAAT said it was a ‘very disappointing verdict’ and that they were going to appeal.
If the ruling is not overturned then it will be regarded by Whitehall and Westminster as giving a green light to continue arming and supplying brutal dictators and human rights abusers.
An Amnesty International spokesman said:
The shameless arms supplies to Saudi Arabia … may amount to lucrative trade deals but the UK risks aiding abetting these terrible crimes. This is a deeply disappointing outcome which gives a green light to the UK authorities – and potentially other arms suppliers – to continue authorising arms transfers to the Kingdom despite the clear risk they will be used to commit violations. James Lynch, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International (source: Washington Post)
It is difficult to ascribe a rational reason to the High Court’s decision. True they had access to secret information which the rest of us cannot know. But the evidence on the ground is compelling and has come from several different sources and experts. And there is the human rights record of the Saudis themselves in their own country. A record of executions, torture and amputations which puts them in a league of their own.
Behind it all is that they are major purchases of weapons and our biggest market for such materiel by far. They are the tail that wags the dog.
Few can be happy that for the sake of jobs, weapons supplied by us are being used to cause such mayhem, death and misery in an already poor country. We must sincerely hope that the Court of Appeal overturns this disgraceful decision.
Sources: the Independent; Washington Post; New York Times; the Guardian; CNN
Damning criticism of government’s blind eye to arms sales to the Saudi Arabians
Recommends suspension of arms sales to the Saudis
Followers of this blog will be aware of the attention we have been drawing to the war in Yemen and our government’s role in it. It started by accident with a letter to our MP Mr John Glen who forwarded a bland reply from a Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood. The answers began to unravel quite quickly when it was revealed that, for example, far from reigning in the Saudi’s, we were promoting their membership of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Now the International Development and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committees have produced a lengthy report which is extremely critical on several different levels. The chair’s summary remarks were:
The UK led the way in establishing international humanitarian law to govern the sale of arms. The conflict in Yemen has raised serious concerns that we are not showing equal determination in ensuring that these are respected.
During this inquiry we have heard evidence from respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. The Government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.
We call on the Government to continue the UK’s long-standing commitment to IHL and lead the international community in establishing a strong, independent inquiry. The circumstances surrounding incidents in Yemen, such as allegations of the use of cluster bombs, must be firmly established and send a clear message to all combatants in Yemen that human rights must be respected.
The current system for overseeing the sale of arms must be improved. At present we do not have sufficient transparency to hold licensing decisions to account or the confidence that the benchmarks ensuring human rights law is respected are high enough. This must be addressed immediately.
Backbench committees do valuable and largely unsung work in the House of Commons and provide an opportunity for members to question government activities more closely than they are able to do in the House itself.
The background situation in the Yemen is dire. The UN categorises it as a level 3 crisis which is the most severe. UNICEF say that 1,211 children have been killed and 1,650 injured, both are likely to be under-estimates in view of the difficulty in reporting. The economy and health care systems are on the verge of collapse. Over a million people are internally displaced.
Britain however continues to profit from the war by supplying huge amounts of weaponry to the Saudis. Between April and December 2015 we supplied £1.7bn worth of aircraft and a further £1bn of air-delivered bombs. More shockingly is that, although we are no longer supplying cluster munitions, previously supplied ones have turned up on the ground. These weapons kick out tens or hundreds of sub-munitions which saturate an area the size of several football fields. Duds can be dangerous to children especially who can lose limbs or be blinded if they pick them up.
Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have provided evidence to the FCO about the use of these weapons.
The report makes interesting reading most particularly concerning the UK government attitudes to the conflict. It contrasts the FCO’s attitude to the documented evidence it is presented with on the Yemen by NGOs including Amnesty and HRW, which it ignores, with that from Syria where evidence is accepted. David Mepham, the UK director of HRW said in evidence:
I was at a meeting with [the Foreign Secretary] several months ago when I gave him copies of our report and said, “These are the GPS coordinates; these are the strikes; these are the markets and schools that were hit.” Therefore, he has that evidence. The Foreign Office has had that evidence for months. It is extraordinary that the line comes back that they do not have evidence, when that evidence has been shared with them for a considerable period of time.
The line from the government is that the UK has ‘the most robust arms control export regimes in the world’. The committee heard evidence of how long this robust arms control regime took to make its decisions: a matter of days. The hundreds of licences take around 20 or 25 days to approve. In comparison with other government decision making, this is merely the blink of an eye. It seems fairly obvious that little control is exercised. No licence has been refused.
In the face of the hundreds of incidents of schools, marriage ceremonies, factories and hospitals being hit by bombing, the UK government accepts the answers given it by the Saudi government. The committee was sceptical at FCO reliance on Saudi assurances and said:
We are not convinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of IHL breaches and their lack of progress with reporting findings only confirms our concerns that they are obstructing progress. Of 185 incidents reported by UN, HRW and AI, only 9 investigations have taken place
Our involvement is not just limited to supplying weapons but military and civilian personnel are also involved in the control centre and elsewhere. The claim is that they are not directing the actual bombing. The committee were not convinced by this argument.
It is impossible, on the basis of the evidence that is before us to claim plausibly that the United Kingdom is not involved. We provide the aircraft and the bombs. This level of involvement without being party to a conflict is unprecedented. This is an area where there is much confusion and greater clarity is needed. (para 75)
The committee considered our political role in this conflict and our supposed commitment to an international rules based order. We were now in a tricky position. UK’s support for the Saudi led coalition primarily through the sale of arms and in the face of violations of International Humanitarian Law is inconsistent with our global leadership role in the world. The very rules the UK championed – represented by the Arms Trade Treaty – are at risk of unravelling.
The committee heard evidence that the arms companies were a huge source of employment and that if we did not supply the weapons, others would. An argument which could easily be applied to slavery.
For the sake of weapons sales, the government has become ensnared with a war which is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster. Our involvement is much to close for comfort and attempts to dissemble and hide the truth are at risk of unravelling. We also risk losing the moral argument as well. It is difficult for us to criticise the Russians and Syrians for their barbaric activities in Aleppo and elsewhere, when we are only slightly removed from doing the same things in Yemen. So far the government has been lucky: all eyes are on Syria and there are few reports emerging from Yemen. But this report is a welcome spotlight on the unsavoury and ultimately foolish activities by our government in that country. They recommend ending arms sales to the Saudis.
On 26 October the House of Commons debated the question of withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The intention was to send a message to the government that MP’s do not want to support a war without a UN investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law. Labour MPs did not attend and the vote was lost. Mr Glen voted against the motion. So the carnage continues.