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UK: Championing human rights while creating conflict?

March 18, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Last week, the small English town of Farnborough hosted the Security and Policing Event. It was a commercial festival for human rights abusers wanting to get their hands on weapons for state repression – with previous attendees including delegations from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Libya and Algeria, amongst others. Details of the governments which attended this year’s event have yet to be released.

Covert surveillance, arms and ammunition for police forces, and “public order equipment” (e.g. water cannons and tear-gas) were for sale. The conference was organised, as it has been for the last 30 years, by the Home Office, who banned journalists from attending.

“The event enables exhibitors to display products which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment,” says its website.

Salespeople from BAE Systems, Thales, Finmeccanica and Heckler & Koch, and surveillance companies such as Gamma Group and the Hacking Team were all present.

Further government support came from the Defence & Security Organisation, a specialised government department which supports British arms sales abroad. The team currently comprises 128 civil service staff in London, according to parliamentary records.

The existence of this conference, and its enthusiastic promotion by the British government, clearly demonstrates the double standards the UK has on human rights.

Less than a month before, former Foreign Secretary William Hague had posed for photographs with film star, activist and special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. Jolie was opening Europe’s first academic centre to combat the brutality faced by women in war zones. She had recently returned from Iraq where she had been researching abuses faced by women at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Foreign Office has been an excellent sponsor of the work to protect women in conflict. In 2014, Jolie and Hague had also organised 151 countries to sign a protocol designed to protect women from sexual violence in conflict.

Both of these achievements deserve credit, but – at the same time – the British government contributes to global instability more than most, by helping British defence and security companies sell to oppressive governments, particularly in the Middle East. These governments in turn act as incubators for extremist groups like the Islamic State, which go on to rape women. The logic is baffling.

It is not just rape being used as a weapon of war. For example, the International Rescue Committee has “documented patterns of sexual violence by landlords and potential employers who exploit Syrian refugees’ economic vulnerability in host states like Lebanon and Jordan.” The UK has done little to remove women from these situations.

Of the four million Syrian refugees looking for new homes, the UK has taken in just 90. When civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, around a million Libyans fled the country. Most have now returned, but the UK refused to host any of them while they were refugees. Instead, the British government invited 300 Libyan soldiers to the UK for training, many of the cadets embarked on a campaign of rape. The government was forced to end the programme.

You can’t with one hand claim to be protecting women, but on the other hand be stoking conflict around the world. To do so is little more than a cosmetic public relations exercise designed to soften the reputation of the British government for cynical cruelty, in particular in the Middle East.

The situation was summed up perfectly by Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s publicity stunt, pulled at an arms trade dinner attended by hundreds of arms dealers and 30 MPs last month. A video of the scene, in which a female campaigner made a speech to guests calling on them to “reconsider their jobs”, gained over 80,000 views on YouTube. “Don’t touch me like that, I’m [five months] pregnant,” she appealed, as she was roughly man-handled off the stage by private security guards. The crowd were jeering. It was a very British “Establishment” response to a brave woman drawing attention to a very British double standard.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.