Arms and the Cameron

In several speeches last year, the recently-elected coalition government announced a new “direction” to foreign policy, interpreted by many as one with a greater emphasis on trade.

But William Hague was keen to stress that there would “no downgrading of human rights”. The rule of law and “values” dear to the UK would be advanced around the world. “We cannot achieve long term security and prosperity unless we uphold our values”, said Hague.

Hmm. Amnesty gave this a cautious welcome. There were concerns. Underneath the rhetoric might this mean jettisoning any last vestige of the Robin Cook-inspired "ethical" foreign policy? Did it mean trade would now always trump rights?

As ever, the proof of the foreign policy pudding is in the, er, foreign practice eating (if you follow).

There have been a couple of revealing episodes. One was the UK’s biggest-ever trade delegation to China in November. The lead-up to the visit was messy, with Business Secretary Vince Cable saying there were no plans to mention human rights on the visit (despite Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo even then languishing in a Chinese jail). Not a great advert for Hague’s approach.

And now David Cameron's been having his prime ministerial ears well and truly boxed over his Middle East trip. The Daily Mail calls the decision to take numerous delegates from the UK arms industry along for the ride "questionable". The Independent called it a “terrible error of judgement”, and former Foreign Office Minister Denis McShane said it “shows insensitivity and crassness of a high order.”

Is this fair? Well in truth it’s a bit selective. Some of the things Cameron has been saying are laudable. Praising “brave and peaceful” protests by people “hungry for political and economic reform” is the sort of thing Amnesty might have said (even if Amnesty might have avoided Cameron’s Obama-esque – and totally meaningless – “History is sweeping” through the Middle East and North Africa remark).

But the timing is atrocious. With protestors in Libya being described by the country’s increasingly unstable-looking ruler as "greasy rats" and reportedly being killed in their scores by government-controlled foreign mercenaries, selling arms to countries in the region clashes with the spirit of the times (to say the least).

But Cameron’s not wrong to say countries are perfectly entitled to buy arms and other kit for legitimate defence and policing purposes. The real point is: are the risk-assessment procedures up to scratch when it comes to sending UK arms overseas?

The lesson of Bahrain and Libya is that they’re not. Check out this YouTube video on the #Feb17 protests in Libya. If you look closely, at 30 seconds and at 1.30 secs you can clearly see a formidable crowd control vehicle that looks uncannily similar to ones sold to Libya by a company from Britain. The firm is called NMS International Group. It’s nestled away in the lovely East Midlands town of Market Harborough.

So what? Well, it hasn’t been illegal to sell armoured crowd control vehicles to Libya and the Amnesty arms experts aren’t accusing NMS of breaking any laws. They are, though, asking why the government (the previous one as it happens: take note Mr McShane) was granting licences for stuff like this to go to Libya. (Go here to support Amnesty’s campaign to tighten up the UK’s arms export licensing procedures and to create a rigorous new international Arms Trade Treaty).

The lesson of this latest episode? Exporting British values shouldn’t mean selling weapons to known human rights abusers.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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