Britain has traded with just about every dictator with a homoerotic military uniform and a pair of bad sunglasses

Britain's record for arming dictators, political psychopaths and murderous bastards is well known and long established. Basically, if you can sit through a Rorschach test and see butchered corpses in every card held up, Britain will sell you weapons. This is not just the case with the more recent examples, such as Indonesia's President Suharto or Iraq's Saddam Hussein; even back in the First World War, British arms manufacturers managed to sell to both sides.

I would not be surprised to discover that Britain had done business with Napoleon and the Spanish conquistadors, nor that King Harold was killed by an arrow with "Made in the UK" on the shaft. Had he won the Battle of Hastings, the first thing King Harold would have done was set up a high-profile "crossbows to Normandy inquiry", resulting in no one being found responsible or losing their job. The Anglo-Saxons would then have boasted proudly of an "ethical dimension to bow and arrow sales", only to be caught later flogging siege catapults to Indonesia. In fact, though I have absolutely no proof, I am willing to bet a fiver that Britain did a roaring trade in flints to Cro-Magnon man.

Over the years, British politicians have had plenty of chances to practise their excuses for trading with just about every single dictator with a homoerotic military uniform and a pair of bad Seventies sunglasses. So far the best argument that the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry have managed to muster is the policy of "critical engagement". The idea of "critical engagement" is that by establishing trade and diplomatic links* with countries with appalling records of human rights abuse, they will become more "civilised". Strangely enough, neither the DTI nor the FO can explain just how selling huge quantities of weapons to torturing states improves civil liberties.

People who have highly prioritised their interest in guns tend not to be that concerned with human rights. If this were not the case, the Countryside Alliance march would have been full of people with green wellies and Labradors, waving shotguns and wearing Amnesty International T-shirts. Maybe I am wrong and on the glorious 12th a bunch of corporate hoorays spend the day blasting birds out of the air, only to dash back home, down a quick Glenmorangie and spend the evening writing to prisoners of conscience in Burma.

Surely, if you buy shed loads of tear gas, truncheons, tanks, assault rifles, mortars and the like, you are under enormous pressure to use them - if only to find out what they do. No one, not even Mahatma Gandhi, could spend hundreds of millions on arms and think: "Let's just keep them in the cupboard for a rainy day." So when Britain sold £188m of arms to Turkey in 1999, the Turks must have been itching to use them. A year later, presumably after the Turks had "tried out" their new weapons, Britain received nearly 4,000 asylum-seekers from Turkey. Many of those refugees were likely to have been on the receiving end of "critical engagement".

That this policy is not only a failure but a PR shame morally to justify trade with torturing states is well highlighted by the case of Turkey. In late 1999, Turkey was made a candidate for membership of the European Union. Obviously, the EU cannot include among its members a country that still uses the death penalty, discriminates in the most racist and oppressive manner against the Kurdish minority, boasts a terrible track record for banning freedom of expression and easily tops the league for torturing states in Nato. This is the time, argue the proponents of "critical engagement", when Turkey will be forced to change.

How wrong they are. The latest EU progress report on Turkey, published on 13 November, states that Turkey has not improved "the situation as regards torture and mistreatment", giving the EU "serious grounds for concern". In fact, the report goes on to state that the torture rate has increased in the first nine months of this year. A week after the publication of this report, the Human Rights Association in Ankara confirmed that the annual number of complaints of torture and humiliating treatment in custody has nearly doubled since 1999, from 472 to 762.

For all the talk of dialogue and engagement, Turkey has not only failed to improve on its human rights record, it has got worse.

Indeed, Turkey has increased its attacks on those who defend civil liberties. The MP Sema Piskinsut was the head of the Turkish Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights. During an unannounced inspection of a Turkish police station at three in the morning, she found a locked door. The police refused to open it. Eventually she "pushed the door panel in" to discover "a frame on which people were hung up". In her efforts to show how widespread torture is, Piskinsut has taken torture equipment from more than 30 police stations in 14 different provinces, including electro-shock equipment, high-pressure hoses, hooks and truncheons. For this, she has been sacked and arrested on trumped-up charges.

If we are to accept Labour's assertions that trade and diplomacy have an effect on a country's human rights, then it follows that the worsening of Turkey's torture rate is in part due to Britain trading with that country. In which case, if Britain is genuine about wanting to improve civil liberties there, it will stop selling arms to our Turkish coalition allies against terror. Until that happens, Blair will remain another one of the new world order's pious apologists for torture.

* Yes, I know they are the same thing

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?