Britain Is Getting Cosy With Another Authoritarian Regime in North Africa

06/09/2013 15:37 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Lord Risby, David Cameron's Special Trade Envoy to Algeria will be leading an important trade delegation to the country next week.

UK foreign policy aims to lock North African natural gas into the European and British grid and is heavily influenced by arms and fossil fuel corporate interests. As a result, the Conservative government has courted close relations with the Algerian regime, including arms sales and support for an expanded role for BP. This comes despite repeated attempts to rise up repression over the recent years.

Risby's trip from 8-10 September comes as the culmination of several high-profile visits between the two countries in the last year after David Cameron's historic visit to Algeria last January, the first post-independence visit by a serving Prime Minister. The Special Envoy's trip comes just ahead of the controversial DSEi 2013 (Defence & Security Equipment International) arms fair in London (10-13th September), one of the biggest events on the international arms fair circuit, to which Algeria has been a regular guest. With new revelations about sales of chemicals that are components of nerve gas to Syria, there are fears that weapons sold to Algeria will be used against the domestic population, which is blighted by authoritarianism, endemic corruption and a stifled political expression.

Within my work at Platform and Algeria Solidarity Campaign, we decided along with other human rights NGOs such as Campaign Against Arms Trade and Stop the Arms Fair Coalition to write to Baroness Warsi at the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), raising concerns about potential arms sales to the regime. Algeria is one of the most repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) region that has avoided an "Arab Spring"-style uprising. Yet, the British government has been heavily promoting its relation with the regime over the last two years. This approach of disregarding despotism and human right abuses also characterised UK relations with "friendly" dictators like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt that were swept away by the Arab uprisings.

Algeria was listed as a "priority market" by UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) in 2010/2011, highlighting how the UK has been eager to pursue arms sales to Algeria in recent years. According to research carried out by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), around £300 million worth of weapons have been sold to the North African state since 2008. Kaye Stearman from Campaign Against Arms Trade said: "The UK has licensed weapons which are used in internal repression despite Algeria's closed political system and terrible human rights record. Just one arms licence has been refused - and that was back in 2008. We should not be promoting or selling weapons to this regime - and the government should not be inviting them to weapons fairs like DSEi."

UK arms sales are an outrage given that Algeria is one of the worst offenders in the region when it comes to human rights, according to damning reports by several NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN Watch. The country also has a history with terrorism and suffered from a decade-long merciless civil war after a military coup in the 90s. Human rights were systematically abused by both the military regime and the Islamist fundamentalists. Two decades on, the promises of restoring democracy have failed to materialise and the nation is still suffocated by a heavily corrupt dictatorship.

Owning the largest natural gas reserves in Africa, Algeria stands as an important player in respect of EU and UK energy security and has been identified as a significant trading partner under the Department of Energy and Climate Change's (DECC) International Energy Security Policy. It is the third-largest supplier of natural gas to the European Union (after Russia and Norway) and could be meeting about 10% of the UK gas demand in coming years. Interestingly, the same Lord Risby has already been involved in promoting energy deals with other repressive regimes, taking part in a trade mission to Azerbaijan in 2012, paid for by the national oil company propping up the Aliyev regime.

While salivating over Algeria's natural gas reserves, the UK is using the pretext of "fighting global terrorism" to consolidate its relation with the Algerian regime, thus contributing to its longevity. The Western discourse on promoting human rights and democracy rings hollow, when countries like the UK are arming regimes and practicing resource colonialism.

For the Algerian people, who aspire for social justice and fight continuously for democracy, this trade by the UK comes across as collusion with a dictatorship in order to advance British imperialist interests and secure UK access to strategic resources in North Africa.

Any arms sales to Algeria are enabling an authoritarian regime to brutally repress the local struggles for democracy and dignity. People in London ought to support those struggles by opposing arms fairs like DSEi taking place in London next week. I'll be joining the Stop the Arms Fair Coalition in their massive week of action that is planned from 7-14 September.