THE BLOG

Ignoring the Torture of Our Own Citizens Demonstrates How Far Britain Is Willing to Go to Preserve Its Cost Relationship With Brutal Gulf Dictatorships

03/05/2013 15:51 BST | Updated 02/07/2013 10:12 BST

The British government recently sat down with torturers and did business. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Yet this time, the tortured victims of Sheikh Khalifa's dictatorship in the United Arab Emirates were not political dissidents, but British citizens.

Grant Cameron, Karl Williams and Suneet Jeerh are all in their mid-twenties. The three men have been beaten and had their bones broken. Karl Williams told reprieve, "Once I had been knocked to the ground, the police picked me up and put me on the bed. They pulled down my trousers, spread my legs and started to electrocute my testicles. It was unbelievably painful. I was so scared."

Beyond the glistening white beaches and shining skyscrapers the UAE is a regime with little respect for basic human rights. One month ago, Human Rights Watch said that 94 Emiratis charged with 'crimes against national security' had not been given a fair trial, whilst the dictatorship allows little room for dissent and has banned trade unions. Many migrant workers languish in labour camps and are effectively indentured into slavery.

On his state visit to Britain Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was welcomed by The Queen, giving a veneer of respectability to the debt-riddled dictatorship. Her Majesty offered an astute summary of the relationship "The UAE is one of our largest trading partners in the Gulf region, and we have welcomed Emirati investments in the United Kingdom."

And why would she say any different? At a time when the sole objective of Gulf foreign policy is to promote our narrow 'national interest', human rights and democracy aren't part of the equation. Before the Arab spring, Britain exported crowd control weapons to Gaddafi's Libya, Mubarak's Egypt and the Bahraini dictatorship. According to Amnesty International UK's Head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan Hogarth, in 2009 the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers in attacks in Yemen which killed hundreds - possibly thousands - of civilians.

Palestinian legal monitor Al Haq tried to sue Labour's ministers in 2009 for exporting components to Israel which were used in Operation Cast Lead, where 1,400 Gazans were killed in an attack in which Israel committed numerous war crimes according to the UN Fact Finding Mission. We'd be outraged if Britain had armed Hamas before the conflict but arming the occupying power was deemed acceptable. There is no moral justification for selling arms to these types of regimes, and the results should sicken the British taxpayers who subsidise the arms industry at £700m a year.

Yet much of the criticism of British foreign policy amounts to anger and disgust, but nothing more. What is needed is for real, concrete policies that a Labour government in 2015 can implement.

Firstly, the objectives of foreign policy must change. Rather than promoting the ill-defined national interest, the Labour party should live up to both its liberal and socialist traditions and advocate a universalist and internationalist foreign policy. Re-aligning the targets and rhetoric from trade to rights would be a major step forward.

Ending the subsidies to the arms industry would be progressive step. The re-allocation of £700m of taxpayers money to other sectors of the economy as advocated by economist Ha-Joon Chang would make good foreign policy, industrial policy and economic policy. Targeting green energy industries could aid environmental policy too. When George Bush Snr temporarily suspended aid to Israel in the early 1990s, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin froze settlements until the money returned. Timed well and targeted right, sanctions can work, most memorably by ending apartheid in South Africa.

Government trade and aid deals should be tied to human rights records. Rather than promoting narrow 'British interests' (usually a synonym for the interests of arms dealers) we ought to increase tariffs for repressive regimes and unload rolling sanctions on rogue states in a targeted and effective manner, rather than diving into bed with them.

These are immensely problematic issues to overcome. We can't simply raise the drawbridge on the world. Whatever the policies Labour choose in 2015, our foreign policy needs a radical change from a trade-oriented to a rights-oriented perspective.