The first ‘responsibility to protect’ is to protect citizens from the violence of your own state. Yet in the UK we remain largely oblivious to the deepest depravities and duplicities of our own government. While often wars are waged upon the pretext of upholding human rights, little critical attention is paid to Britain’s own record. No wonder. A glossy cognitive dissonance provides false security from the reality of arms deals, chemical weapons, dodgy dictators, torture and mass civilian death. It’s painful. Today the bloody legacy of Iraq has left a toxic atmosphere – and in light of Westminster’s hesitancy over Syria – there is an opportunity to reconsider this legacy. Here are 10 reasons to doubt the morality of UK foreign policy.
1) The UK sold nerve gas chemicals to Syria in January
Export licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride were granted by UK Trading and Investment to Syria. The chemical is capable of being used to make weapons such as sarin. Mark Bitel of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (Scotland) said: “The Government is hypocritical to talk about chemical weapons if it’s granting licences to companies to export to regimes such as Syria.”
2) The UK will host Rosoboronexport which arms Assad’s regime
In September London will host the Defence and Security Equipment International. It’s a huge arms sales fair. This fair will include Rosoboronexport. The Russian military exporters are the main supporters of the Syrian regime, providing 78% of their military equipment. Despite this, they will be welcomed to trade in the UK next week – despite the EU arms embargo on trade with Syria.
3) The UK has been an ally of Assad
In 2002 Bashar Assad visited Buckingham Palace. Tony Blair considered bestowing a knighthood upon him. This follows a pattern. Saddam Hussein was courted by the US and UK during the war with Iran. Tony Blair courted Colonel Gaddafi before the UK supplied Libya with weapons. In these cases, UK policy has been driven by self-interest and coalition building rather than human rights. The UK helped train the Syrian armed forces on top of selling arms and chemicals.
4) The UK and US used chemical weapons in Basra and Fulluja
UK forces used White Phosphorus in Iraq. White phosphorus is highly flammable and ignites on contact with oxygen. If the substance hits someone’s body, it will burn until deprived of oxygen. In the siege of Fulluja, insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin. The Italian State Broadcaster RAI accused the US of carrying out war crimes. The US denies this.
UK forces used Depleted Uranium in Iraq (under 3 tonnes according to the government). It is a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal produced in the nuclear power industry. Its use in Iraq caused great damage to the environment. Compelling evidence links chemical munitions to sickening health defects in newly born children. In cities like Basra and Fallujah, where American and British forces used heavy munitions at the start of the war, it is estimated that over half of all babies conceived after the start of the war were born with heart defects. The images are too traumatic for publication. In some photo heads and eyes bulge out of their natural shape. Many were ‘still-born’: deformed or decayed within the womb. These images stick to your mind like the poisonous dust that stuck to the eyes and throats of their mothers.
5) The UK exports £billions of weapons to dictatorships
I previously outlined the UK’s horrific record on arming dictatorships. Recently, The Independent reported on UK “blood money”. £12.3 billion of armed goods were sanctioned by government licenses to countries on the UK’s own list of human rights abusers. These include Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Russia, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syria. Mass killings involving UK arms have occurred in Israel, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya in the last few years alone. These exports are heavily subsidised by UK taxpayers. In one report, Management Today describe “peace” as “bad for business”.
6) The UK provides diplomatic and military support to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia
The UK government has been a close diplomatic, economic and military supporter of Saudi Arabia. This has included organising multi-billion pound arms deals for vast oil supplies alongside diplomatic visits.
According to Amnesty International “Torture is rife in Saudi Arabia”, while the country continues to repress women, censor political expression and carry out numerous state executions. This has not prevented the UK from supporting the regime. The Al Yamamah deal spanned 1985-2006, whereby British arms were sold in exchange for 400,000-600,000 barrels of oil a day. It was the largest arms deal in UK history. They continue.
Recently Saudi Arabia has carried out attacks on Yemen and Bahrain. Amnesty International reported that UK arms exports were used in the attacks and perhaps in war-crimes.
Similar evidence could be compiled for UK complicity in the Egyptian regime of Mubarak, Libya under Gaddafi, through Craig Murray‘s testimony in relation to Uzbekistan, and the Arab Kingdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. In each case UK trading interests come before human rights.
7) Civilian deaths from war
The UK has been continuously at war since 1962. In the words of Laurie Penny, there are many bodies buried under Britain’s moral high ground. Estimates of civilian deaths from the Iraq conflict alone go into the hundreds of thousands. The inevitable deaths of innocent people are excused by the military euphemism ‘collateral damage’.
A tomahawk missile weights 2,900 – 3,500 lb. It is not surgical. It is designed to cause death and destruction. Would a Syrian bombardment look like this film released by Chelsea Manning? Or the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory? (Sudan 1998) Or the bombing of the Al Jazeera Offices? (Afghanistan 2001)
War has rarely brought about lasting peace settlements. It is useful listing previous US bombing targets and asking whether military assaults brought stability: Guatemala (’54), Vietnam (’60-75), Laos (’65-73), Cambodia (’65-73), Libya (’86), Iran (’87), Iraq (’91, ’98, ’03), Sudan (’98), Afghanistan (’01), Pakistan (’05-), Somalia (’07, ’11) etc. In the end, stability always rests upon a political solution not war.
8) The UK is complicit in torture and extraordinary rendition
According to the UK pressure group Liberty “increasing evidence has come to light of UK knowledge of, and involvement in, the CIA’s post 9/11 programme of extraordinary rendition and torture”. Ian Cobain’s recent release Cruel Britannia documents the history of UK government torture. From the British torture base at Bad Nenndorf during WWII to modern activities at Camp Nama UK forces have been complicit or carried out torture. Recently British troops helped to detain prisoners at Camp Nama in 2003. Prisoners were abused. Further claims of torture and murder by UK forces against Iraqis are being investigated by the al-Sweady inquiry. Earlier this year information was presented to Channel 4 of collusion between Gadaffi’s government, MI5 and MI6 in relation to a case of torture. UK officials met Libyan officials in 2002 to outline plans for “intelligence exchange, counter terrorism and mutual co-operation”. Gadaffi’s regime was known to arrest and torture its opponents. One torture victim is now suing the UK Security Services.
9) The UK ignores or blocks the United Nations – and prevents reform
UK politicians often use the phrase ‘alongside the international community’ to justify national foreign policy. Yet in the case of government policy on Syria, there was no such international consensus. China, India, Russia and Germany are all opposed to taking part in intervention. United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon called for the West to “give diplomacy a chance” and “give peace a chance” instead of rush to war. As was the case with Iraq, the UK government was willing to go to war without a UN mandate. UN mandates are problematic. The UN Security Council remains in desperate need of reform. It is often left in deadlock. However, the UK is itself a blockage to such reform as it is likely to lose the right of veto within a more democratic structure. UK parties therefore seek to maintain the current system out of self-interest, which in part prevents the emergence a more just world order.
10) The UK has a poor domestic record on democracy and civil rights
The UK is more interested in ‘promoting democracy’ through war than improving democracy at home. There are numerous examples of this. The UK remains without a written constitution, a fully elected parliament or a fully elected head of state. The power of Royal Prerogative remain invested in the Prime Minister and open to abuse. Rights of trade unions and journalists have come under increasing assault in the past decades. The UK surveillance state has been extended to unprecedented levels, as recent revelations on GCHQ and NSA demonstrate. The UK Borders Agency places heavy restrictions upon the rights of asylum seekers – and recently has launched public campaigns of victimisation. There are but some of the democratic and civil rights issues within the UK. These issues may be minor compared to atrocities elsewhere, yet if rights and democracy are just causes for war abroad then much more should be done to promote those values at home.
For these reasons I find it difficult to trust the motivations of the UK government. In Westminster many have failed to learn the lessons of Britain’s imperial past. Rather than looking to the stronger human rights traditions of other European states, they appear fixated with the power politics of war and weaponry. For the argument of humanitarian action to hold credibility – for Britain ever to act as a global peacemaker – a greater focus must be placed on these darker aspects of UK foreign policy: the arms trade, the support for dictators, the use of chemical weapons, torture and death. The first ‘responsibility to protect’ is to protect citizens from the violence of your own state; and within the UK there remains a great deal of violence for citizens to confront.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) September 3, 2013