THE BLOG

Backing Bahrain: Britain Can't Promote Human Rights While Simultaneously Arming Dictatorships

16/01/2014 12:25 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

"Above all we will strive to be a powerful example of a country that upholds human rights and fundamental freedom throughout every aspect of our diplomatic engagement overseas."

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, 10th December 2013

There are few countries where human rights mean as little as they do in Bahrain. Torture and repression are practised regularly by a government that has been suppressing debate and has only intensified its systematic crackdown on opposition voices since the Arab Spring.

To this backdrop you would expect the UK to stand up for human rights and refuse to deal with such terrible people. You would expect Britain to support those calling out for democratic reform in the country, rather than the tyranny that is oppressing them. Unfortunately you would be wrong.

Welcome to GREAT British Week, a week of celebrations and state sponsored joy that organisers say is to mark 200 years of 'friendship and strong bilateral relations' between Great Britain and Bahrain. The week is seeing a 250 strong British delegation descending on Bahrain; complete with Prince Andrew, Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence, a host of weapons companies, such as Rolls Royce and BAE, and even a big red London bus. Delegates are invited to socialise, relax, do business and even take a spin on the Formula One track courtesy of McLaren.

One thing we can be sure of is that a lot of money will be changing hands. Since the Arab Spring began in 2011 our government has approved over £30 million worth of military and dual-use arms export licences to Bahrain; including assault rifles, pistols and naval guns.

The Bahraini government is far from the only tyranny that enjoys a strong relationship with Britain. The UK Government's 2010 Human Rights Annual Report identified 26 "countries of concern". These were countries defined as having "serious wide-ranging human rights concerns". That year, they approved arms export licences to 16 of them. You only need to look to Egypt or the United Arab Emirates to see examples of illegitimate and oppressive regimes to which our government has only been too happy to provide moral and practical support.

Our policies haven't just been unethical, they have also been extremely short-sighted. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Libya.

In 2004 the EU arms embargo on Libya was lifted and almost immediately the UK courted Gaddafi for arms sales. In 2010 alone we licensed £34 million worth of arms exports, including "small arms ammunition" and "crowd control ammunition". This policy continued right up until the Arab Spring, when Gaddafi used our exports to fight against the uprising. In February 2012, despite widespread insecurity, Libya was again identified as a "priority market" and sales have continued, with almost £6 million of military export licenses having since been approved.

Of course Britain is far from the only country to do this. In fact lots of countries export all sorts of weapons to oppressive governments. However, as we are always being told, we have a major global influence and we should be using it to promote freedom and democracy instead of providing legitimacy to dictatorships and human rights abusers. Earlier this month DAPA, the South Korean export agency, announced that, following an international campaign supported by Campaign Against Arms Trade, they would cancel a shipment of 1.6 million gas canisters to Bahrain. This sets an important precedent which Britain should be following. Rather than providing a fig-leave of respectability for tyrants we should be leading the way in calling for an immediate end to arms exports to all countries that abuse human rights.

The Arab Spring should have seen a re-appraisal of how we do business with these countries, but the change has been negligible. In its recent report the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said: "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government." This statement alone gives two perfectly good reasons to oppose our role in the global arms trade.

Once the racing cars have been packed up and the bunting has been taken down it will be just like any other day for the leaders of Bahrain. Unfortunately for the people outside the compound, who will see little of the events, they are likely to be resisting a government that will now be even more bolstered by international support. It will also be back to business as usual for our government and their inherently contradictory and hypocritical foreign policy in which the human rights of civilians all too often play second fiddle to the short term profits of the arms companies.

Andrew Smith is writing on behalf of Campaign Against Arms Trade