The haunting images from Syria moved me to action

The media has a right - and even a duty - to publish graphic images.

What do you do when you see a picture of a toddler with his hands tied and his throat cut? A week ago on Saturday I was scrolling through the #Syria hashtag on my Twitter feed when pictures of the Houla massacre started coming through. That night I looked at many of them. I shook, sobbed but I kept looking. 

I’ve seen worse in the days since then: video footage not of dead children but of dying ones. A young boy, his throat slashed, appears to be dead but suddenly gasps for breath. Someone gently, so gently, undresses him. Another gasp, Then silence. A chubby baby in a nappy, bleeding from stab wounds, screams in agony. The screaming goes on and on. A tiny newborn lies still in its blanket, then gulps for air. Is still again, for a long time. Another gulp. But weaker now. 

There is enormous controversy about whether the media should publish this kind of material. In this country, they don't; last week’s Times front page showing a close up of dead boy was exceptional in every sense, but it did not show the physical destruction of a child’s body wreaked by shells, bullets and knives. That was left to Martin Fletcher’s extraordinary accompanying words  - and to read his simple description of the children’s corpses was to shudder and despair. 

But nothing he or I write conveys the violation of a child’s body slashed and stabbed and smashed that an image can sear into your understanding of what one human being can do to another.  Pictures and footage of Houla's dead and dying children - and the many others killed before them - can be seen on YouTube and via Twitter, and I think people should sometimes choose to look.

I look out of respect, because that child felt terror and pain; for me, to look at that image - or watch footage of their terrible dying - is to begin the process of attempting to acknowledge what they went through, to fully know that until minutes before they had been laughing and squabbling and refusing to eat their tea just as my children do, and to value the incalculably precious life that has been stolen from them. 

The media in some countries runs this kind of material as standard, and it leads to charges that people become inured to the horror of violent death. I’m sure that’s the case. The impact of the Times’s front page derives from the rarity of using such an image so prominently. I imagine the team which put that page together agonised about whether to go with that picture, or to use of the more graphic ones, or indeed to show an image of a dead child at all. 

In this country, we don’t face the prospect of being killed in our own homes and streets. We rarely confront the prospect or consequence of violent death. Our unfamiliarity is a privilege - seeing it occasionally, though it’s nothing like living it, makes others’ pain harder to ignore. 

My pain on looking is, by comparison, of no relevance - except, importantly, in terms of what such feelings might galvanise me to do. Looking - and choosing to keep looking - at this kind of image must prompt action, else it becomes not only emotionally devastating but ultimately pornographic and disrespectful.

I've not known what to do for months now, but last Saturday night, I knew I had to do something or I would always be ashamed.

On Sunday 10 June, at noon till 2pm, the 'Stop Killing Children' protest will be held outside the Syrian embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London. Please join us. Bring your kids. It's not enough. I don't know what is. But doing something must be better than doing nothing. And without me seeing those pictures, this wouldn’t be happening.

Follow protest updates on #stopkillingSyrianchildren and on the Facebook Event page (which includes some of the type of imagery described in this column)

Protestors chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they carry a mock coffin. Photograph: Getty Images.

Louise Tickle is a specialist education and social affairs journalist.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.