Jonathan's Herald Column - The duplicity of British arms sales


Investigative journalism is a hallmark of a healthy democracy, delivering accountability and oversight. Yet while we celebrate the values and freedoms that make our democracy function, internationally, for some time, the UK has become the arms dealer of choice to despotic and repressive regimes across the globe.

Our ties to the Middle East have become less concerned with freedoms, as selling arms to fuel the worst conflicts of the 21st Century.

The need to rein in the growing military-industrial complex in the UK has been pressing for some time. Yet even I was shocked to learn of an investigation by the BBC and the Danish newspaper, Dagbladet Information, which revealed that BAE Systems, a British arms dealer, had willingly circumvented UK restrictions and sold technologies to repressive regimes in the Gulf. Knowing that the sale would be prohibited under existing UK law, Criterion 5, which prohibits the sale of arms and technology that could potentially threaten UK national security, BAE Systems made the sale through a Danish subsidiary, according to the report.

Arms companies based in the UK, whom the UK Government trust to produce the weaponry that equips our armed forces, have run riot over UK foreign policy. The knowledge that the UK Government will stand by and watch arms companies skirt around UK law in the pursuit of sales deeply worries me. Potentially even worse is the knowledge of what these sales meant for thousands of campaigners across the Middle East who campaigned for the same freedoms that you and I enjoy.

The arms sales tracked by the BBC in this instance were not the usual munitions and tanks that have scarred the populations of Yemen and Syria, but something potentially far more insidious. These sales focused around surveillance technology, known as ‘Evident’ which could be used explicitly to monitor political opponents. The BBC quotes a pro-democracy activist from Saudi Arabia as saying that more than 90% of the campaigners of the Arab Spring, a democratic uprising that the UK superficially supported, have since disappeared due to the use of surveillance such as ‘Evident’.

For far too long, British foreign policy has been dictated by arms sales under the smokescreen of combating terrorism and regional stability. I have questioned the Secretary of State for International Trade and have written to the Prime Minister urging immediate reform of the oversight procedures governing arms sales. Selling arms that could jeopardise our national security is a maddening new low in the British state’s involvement in a trade that has aided some of the most repressive regimes in the world, and must not be allowed to continue.

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