The thalidomide victims still seeking compensation

The ongoing legal battles against Grunenthal matter, both for those affected by thalidomide and because of the precedent they set.

Today 185 people in Spain who suffered birth deformities due to Thalidomide are suing the German company Grunenthal, which developed the drug. These individuals have never received compensation from Grunenthal and are now seeking more than £175m in damages.

Although in 2012 Grunenthal apologised for the drug, which was sold as a cure for morning sickness in expectant mothers and is believed to have led to 10,000 babies being born with birth defects worldwide, it has always maintained that it has “no legal responsibility to compensate individuals affected.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, new research has suggested that a larger number of people may have been affected by Thalidomide than previously believed, and these individuals now argue they should receive compensation. The UK distributors of Thalidomide, Distillers (now owned by the drinks firm Diageo) agreed to compensate victims in 1973, and the Thalidomide Trust was set up. The problem now is that although the Thalidomide Trust has helped over 500 people affected, scientists believe the number of people affected by thalidomide is much greater.

Thalidomide was withdrawn as a morning sickness drug in 1961, but babies born with related birth defects in the 1950s are experiencing new and continuing health problems as they get older. And it is truly shocking that over fifty years on, hundreds of victims have still never received any compensation for their life-changing conditions. Grunenthal has always maintained it is not liable because it met contemporary industry standards for drug testing. It has argued that in the 1950s no one tested the effect of drugs on foetuses, a claim that people like Harold Evans, who was associated with the thalidomide investigations while editor of the Sunday Times, hotly dispute.

How Grunenthal and Diageo now respond to new compensation claims is of vital importance, not just for those seeking damages, but also because of the precedent it sets for others. We cannot let drug companies off the hook when their industry tests aren’t rigorous enough, and we must accept the risk that we still don’t know, and cannot know, what the long-term affects are of some of the drugs we use today. And then who, if not the drug companies, should pay when the drugs make things worse?

Thalidomide victims hold AVITE (Association of Thalidomide Victims in Spain) flags after the first day of a trial involving the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal, which produced the drug Thalidomide. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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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.