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26 September 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:27pm

The UK's complicity in helping oppressive governments goes well beyond arms sales

Emily Thornberry is right to back stronger rules on weapons, but other deals with despots need our attention as well.

By Dan Dolan

It has come to something when the mark of an “ethical foreign policy” is not selling combat aircraft to governments which bomb hospitals.

In her speech to Labour party conference this week, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry invoked Robin Cook’s famous pledge to introduce an “ethical dimension” to the Foreign Office’s mission statement. She promised that if Labour is elected, the party will “go much further than that” and “be a beacon in every corner of the globe for the values we believe in here at home”.

This promise was backed by a proposal for “wholesale reform of the legal and regulatory framework fully implementing the International Arms Trade Treaty” and the introduction of a new system based on “the principles of transparency, true parliamentary accountability and freedom from undue influence”.

Thornberry is right to condemn the UK’s secretive process for licensing UK arms sales to regimes like Saudi Arabia, which has presided over a devastating bombing campaign in Yemen claiming thousands of civilian lives. The present system suffers from a woeful lack of formal scrutiny, and the UK’s continued arms sales to Saudi show just how badly it has failed.

But the current government is doing much more to empower oppressive governments than just allowing them to buy British weapons. Under Theresa May’s premiership, the UK has become dodgy dictators’ one-stop shop for training, intelligence, and international legitimacy. A truly ethical foreign policy must address this support in the same manner as arms sales.

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While May has been in government, the UK has routinely helped regimes across the Middle East and North Africa crack down on domestic dissent. In this time the UK has trained Saudi secret police in techniques for hacking activists’ phones; paid for guards in Bahrain’s notorious torture prison; and kitted out Egyptian courtrooms with “waterproof seats” for teenage protestors on trial for their lives.

While May has presided over cuts to the numbers of police on UK streets, she has been much more generous in paying for oppressive police forces overseas. For example, the UK continues to fund Pakistani counter-narcotics officers who send drug mules to death row, and who have showcased the number of death sentences they have secured as “prosecution achievements”.

None of this support would be classified as “arms exports”, and government bodies do not need a licence to provide it. They are simply required to fill in a risk assessment form as part of the government’s “Overseas Security and Justice Assistance” policy, or OSJA. Even by the low standards of the UK’s arms export regime, these assessments are flimsy and inadequate.

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OSJA was introduced to prevent UK complicity in abuses abroad following the Arab Spring, when it was revealed that British forces trained foreign security bodies including Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police. It was intended to hold decision-makers accountable for such assistance and thus prevent future complicity in similar abuses overseas.

Unfortunately, the government has shrouded the policy in secrecy by refusing to disclose risk assessments conducted under its auspices. Last year parliament’s home affairs committee condemned this approach as “totally unacceptable”, and questioned whether the policy was “fit for purpose”.

Thornberry’s critique of the arms export licensing system – that it is based on “entirely subjective assessments taken without proper parliamentary scrutiny” – applies equally to the approval of UK assistance to overseas police forces, security bodies and justice institutions. Just as parliament should have scope to scrutinise and challenge decisions on arms export licenses, MPs and the public have a right to know if the UK is supporting Bahraini torturers or Saudi secret police.

As UK envoys head out to negotiate deals around the world post-Brexit, it is worrying that this policy area is becoming more secretive rather than less. Increasingly, UK government assistance to foreign security forces falls under the auspices of a shadowy cross-Whitehall slush fund with a budget of more than £1bn, the full accounts of which are not available to the public.

Last year parliament’s joint committee on the national security strategy warned that this fund “has not yet struck the right balance between security and transparency”, noting that “the patchwork of information that is available from government sources…is high level, incoherent and occasionally incorrect.”

This culture of secrecy and obfuscation provides cover for practices that fall short of our values, as we have seen from UK support to human rights abusers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan, and many other countries. There is an urgent need to assure parliament and the public that taxpayers’ money is not enabling rights violations.

As our government looks to promote a new “global Britain” abroad, we must be clear about what our values are. Emily Thornberry is right that reform of the UK’s arms export regime is both necessary and long overdue. But a truly ethical foreign policy would extend similar reforms to UK security and justice assistance overseas, and hold public bodies to the same standard as arms companies: that we must not condemn human rights abuses in principle while enabling them in practice.

Dan Dolan is head of policy for Reprieve