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20 January 2016

Britain doesn’t just sell arms to dictatorships – it sells our silence, as well

Britain’s arms trade is undermining the humanitarian efforts of its Department of International Development.

By Diane Abbott

Armed with British planes and British bombs, the Arab world’s richest country has been indiscriminately bombing its most impoverished.

Saudi Arabia, which buys at least a third of our arms exports, has been bombing Yemen for nine months now.

The results have been, in the words of the UN’s Yemen envoy Johannes van der Klauwe, “a humanitarian catastrophe”.

The question is, to what extent are David Cameron and the Conservative government morally and legally complicit?

At the last official count in November, the UN said 5,878 people had been killed and 27,867 wounded.

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Those who survive do so in a living hell: 82 per cent (more than 21 million people) need aid, 50 per cent (12m people) lack regular access to water; 57 per cent (14.4m people) are “food insecure”; 31 per cent (7.6m people) are starving and 10 per cent (2.5m people) have fled their homes.

In December, Save the Children assessed that the conflict had put 1.8 million children out of school and put 1,000 schools beyond use.

Saudi Arabia now stands accused of war crimes. Rights groups, the press and the UN report regular indiscriminate killings. Three Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals have been hit across Yemen. In September last year, UK-made cruise missiles struck a ceramics factory and a water bottling factory, killing dozens of workers, whose bodies melted into the machinery. In Saana on one day alone this month, a wedding hall, a hospital for blind students and the Chamber of Commerce were hit.

These incidents are notable only because they are well documented.

And while Saudi Arabia pulls the trigger, it is Britain which ever-faithfully reloads and replaces its weapons.

Since March 1 2015, we have granted over 100 requests for military equipment, suspending only a handful. In the first three months of the war alone, UK business made £1.7 billion in turnover by selling arms to the House of Saud – £400 million more than the total global aid given to Yemen since the start of the war.

Britain’s arms trade is undermining the humanitarian efforts of its Department of International Development (DFID), which gives £106m a year (2015/2016) in aid to Yemen.

Some argue that, when compared to the billions made from selling arms to the aggressors, our aid to the Yemini people is a drop in the bucket, no better than blood money.

It is ironic that while Matthew Rycroft – our own government’s envoy to the UN – reports that “Yemenis are in the midst of one of the very worst humanitarian crises in the world”, we are complicit in the crime of exacerbating that very crisis.

I use the word “crime” advisedly. In a legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty UK, Professor Philippe Sands QC said that Britain is in breach of its own Export Control Act 2002, the EU Common Position and its international obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) for selling arms to a state at risk of violating international law or committing human rights abuses.

It is shocking that Britain cannot even adhere to its own arms export law – even though the consolidated rules to which the law refers were already weakened in March 2014. In a move criticized by a former Tory defence minister, the government watered down official advice to suspend arms exports at risk of being used for internal repression. In October 2014, Sir John Stanley, then chair of the Committee for Arms Export Controls, told Parliament that the decision “significantly weakens the test for arms exports”, asserting that the government had a “more relaxed approach to arms exports that could be used for internal repression”.

I have today tabled parliamentary questions to the FCO asking if it considers the UK in breach of domestic, EU and international law. Labour has also called for the committee on arms export controls, which has not met once since Saudi started bombing Yemen, to be reconvened.

Our disregard for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is particularly saddening. Signed and ratified by the UK on Christmas Eve 2014, the ATT was fought hard for by stakeholders working with one another across the political spectrum: Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, Conservative MP Alistair Burt, the TUC and, notably, the Defence Manufacturers Association (DMA).

When the arms industry’s own workers lobby the state for a treaty which is then routinely broken by that state, the government cannot claim, as it does, that we must sell arms to war criminals because British jobs depend on it. British workers do not want arms sold in their name if they are used to break humanitarian law. It is not workers but the government that is determined to sell arms come what may, fueling and legitimizing human rights abuses across the world in the process.

Successive governments have lobbied hard internationally for British arms manufacturers and have on more than one occasion invoked national security to scupper investigations into their alleged fraud. Despite this cozy relationship, manufacturers’ profits are protected from public disclosure on the basis of confidentiality. It is however safe to say that UK arms firms such as BAE Systems, and Rolls‑Royce are – quite literally – making a killing.

When Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain or Egypt buy our arms, they also buy our silence on their human rights abuses.

We must have the moral courage to end this silence.