British arms in Bahrain and Libya

By Symon Hill
February 20, 2011

On Friday 18 February 2011, a former defence minister sat beside me in a Sky News studio and insisted that the Bahraini government is not an oppressive regime. Hours later, Bahraini troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.

I was debating with John Gilbert, who was a defence minister under both Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair's prime ministerships. The interview followed the revelation by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) that the UK government had licensed the sale of crowd control weapons and ammunition to the Bahraini and Libyan regimes. Now we've seen what they do with them.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has responded to the public outrage by revoking arms export licences to both countries. This is not enough. He must recognise that they were sold only because arming oppressive regimes is a routine practice of the UK government.

Through UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a unit of the Department for Business, ministers allow civil servants to assist private arms companies in marketing their wares. UKTI devotes more staff to its arms wing that to all civil sectors combined, even though arms account for less than two per cent of UK exports. UK armed forces had been used to sell weapons to Bahrain, destroying the notion that the armed forces are there to protect the British people.

We need not only a change in licensing practice but a change in policy. A first step would be ending all arms sales to oppressive regimes. There are many more steps beyond this.

More fundamentally still, we need a change in attitudes towards democracy and dictatorship. Tony Blair, freed from the burdens of office, gave the game away when the Egyptian people began to protest against Mubarak. He described Mubarak as a "force for good" and said there should not be a "rush to elections".

This is the same man who urged the British people to support the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of Saddam Hussein's vicious treatment of his own people. When challenged about the Iraq war, he always insists that he won't apologise for "removing a dictator". But that was a dictator who did not back US government interests. Blair's unfettered enthusiasm for the Saudi regime is another reminder of his rather mixed approach to dictatorships.

Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat ministers have all been selective about dictators, condemning some while cosying up to others. For the sake of the peaceful martyrs of Bahrain and Libya - some very probably killed with British-made weapons or ammunition - this attitude needs to change.


(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia. He has a specialist interest in arms trade and disarmament issues.

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