Theresa May’s apologetics for arming Saudi Arabia reflects the arms industry’s role in shaping British foreign policy, says Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade
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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. Saudi Arabia confirmed on Monday that it was using cluster bombs in its war on Yemen. The cluster bombs, which were manufactured in the United Kingdom, appear to have been sold to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the UK has sold over £3-billion worth of arms to the Saudi government since their bombing campaign began in March of last year. This includes nearly £4-billion pounds worth of aircraft and munitions. And according to the United Nations, more than three million Yemenis remain internally displaced, and close to 20 million people require humanitarian assistance. And less than a third of Yemenis now have access to medical treatment and the healthcare system is all but destroyed. The UN is also reporting that at least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen due to preventable diseases. And to top it all off, previously contained diseases have resurfaced, with the cholera outbreak already having killed at least 10 people. And joining us today to speak about Yemen and the UK foreign policy towards the Arabian Peninsula, we’re joined with Andrew Smith. He is a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, or the CAAT, and he has written for a range of political magazines and national newspapers. The CAAT is currently involved in legal action against the UK government that is challenging the legality of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia. He joins us today from the UK. Andrew, thank you so much for being here. ANDREW SMITH: Thank you. KIM BROWN: Well, Andrew, cluster bombs have been banned under international law since about 2010, at least, and what has been the reaction from the British government regarding the use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions by Saudi Arabia? ANDREW SMITH: Well, first of all, cluster bombs have been banned for the UK under the Cluster Bomb Conventions; although, Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the convention. But certainly the UK is not allowed to sell cluster bombs, quite rightly, and is not allowed to work cooperatively in military operations that do involve cluster bombs, specifically. Now, Saudi Arabia, of course, bought these in the 1980s, and is not bound by the same rules and legislation. But, I think, a very important point which comes from that is that the UK is knowingly cooperating and working with — and arming and supporting — a regime and a military that is prepared to use cluster bombs. And I think that speaks volumes about the character of the regime. And, actually, although it isn’t entirely surprising, because these accusations have been around for a long time — these accusations were first made about six months ago by Amnesty International. So, although they’re not surprising, I think they have still been shocking to a lot of people. And the opposition to Saudi Arabia using cluster bombs is not just coming from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and kind of peace organizations, it’s also coming from people who are natural supporters of the Saudi regime, and MPs from all sides of Parliament. Because I think the conduct of the bombardment, which Saudi Arabia has unleashed on the people of Yemen over the last 18 months, has been so utterly deplorable, and it’s created a humanitarian catastrophe so urgent and so dire, that I think what it has shown is the hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy in continuing to support this ongoing bombardment. But also the moral bankruptcy of the Saudi Arabian government and the contempt it has for human rights. KIM BROWN: Well, over the last 21 months, Saudi Arabia has bombed schools, hospitals, shipping ports and ancient historical sites in Yemen, and a crushing naval blockade supported by both the US and the UK has been imposed on the country. So, Andrew, what can you tell us about the kind of support that Saudi Arabia has been receiving from Britain and the United States? ANDREW SMITH: Well, I think that the support can be broken down into different areas. First of all, in terms of military support, both the US and the UK have been providing weapons, which have been used in the assaults. In the case of the UK, there has been roughly £3.3-billion worth of arms licensed to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began. That includes about £2.2 billion worth of fighter jets — the same fighter jets that are being used to drop the bombs — and about £1.1 billion worth of bombs and missiles. There’s also about £500,000 worth of tanks and different military vehicles, as well. So, there have certainly been large quantities of weaponry, which has been licensed to the regime. But just as important as military support, is the political support, which has gone along with it. We’ve seen an almost uncritical backing of the bombardment. We’ve seen pathetic excuses being made routinely for the way Saudi Arabia treats not just its own people, but is treating the people of Yemen and its bombardment. And we’ve seen other terrible manifestations, such as UK civil servants lobbying to have Saudi Arabia on the UN Human Rights’ Council, and things like this. So, there’s been a very strong political support. Only two or three weeks ago, we saw Prime Minister Theresa May, going over to Bahrain for the Gulf Cooperation Council meetings where she was rubbing shoulders with Saudi royalty and giving a keynote speech about how much she values the friendship, how much she values the relationships. And we’ve seen that kind of mutual back-scratching which has characterized UK relations with Saudi for decades. Only it’s now being used to whitewash some terrible crimes being committed against the people of Yemen. KIM BROWN: When the Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently challenged Prime Minister Theresa May over the continued arming of Saudi Arabia, so let’s have a listen to that. JEREMY CORBYN: Bombs exported from Britain are being dropped on Yemeni children by Saudi pilots trained by Britain. If there are war crimes being committed, then as the UN suggests, they must be investigated. Isn’t it about time this government suspended its arm sales to Saudi Arabia? THERESA MAY: The issues are being investigated, I say to the right honorable gentleman, and we have taken action. He’s right to refer to the humanitarian crisis in the Yemen. And this country is one of those that is in the forefront of ensuring that humanitarian aid is provided. That is a record of which, I believe, that this country and this government can be proud around the world, in terms of the actions that have been taken. KIM BROWN: Andrew, how do you respond to what you just heard? ANDREW SMITH: Well, I think the first thing to say about Theresa May’s response, is that while the allegations are being investigated, much of the investigation is being done by leading NGOs, very authoritative NGOs, who are all being ignored by the UK government. Because Amnesty International, Oxfam, MSF, Humans Rights Watch, a number of other NGOs have accused Saudi Arabia of violating international humanitarian law. The United Nations has accused Saudi Arabia of violating international humanitarian law. However, the only investigations which are being listened to by the UK government, are those being carried out by the Saudi-led coalition itself, which has been carrying out its own studies into if humanitarian law has been broken or not. Now, of course, Saudi Arabia is not going to find itself guilty of violating international humanitarian law, and it’s absolutely absurd and ludicrous and ridiculous that we would ever trust it to do so in the first place. It’s been interesting because over the last few weeks, the UK has responded to the Russian aggression in Aleppo, and quite rightly, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have called for any violations of international humanitarian law to be fully investigated by the UN. They’ve called for the international criminal courts to get involved, and for those violating the law to be brought to justice. Under no circumstances would the UK ever support Russia in investigating itself for violations of international law. That would just be incredibly stupid. But Saudi Arabia, a regime with a character every bit as bad, if not worse than Putin, is somehow being trusted to investigate itself. If it’s a regime, which cannot be trusted to hold free and fair elections, how can it possibly be trusted to investigate itself for war crimes? KIM BROWN: Well, the White House recently blocked the transfer of some munitions to Saudi Arabia, so, in your opinion, how significant is this block? ANDREW SMITH: Well, I think it’s politically significant. I think that it does send out a message that even the US has concerns about the way Saudi Arabia has been conducting itself. And we have to remember that the US government is the largest arms exporter anywhere in the world. It is the single largest arms dealer in the world. And if even the US government has its reservations about the way Saudi Arabia is conducting itself in its military campaign in Yemen, then surely that’s time for the UK to pause to reflect on its policies, as well. Now, I don’t know how long this will stay in the US. I know there have been challenges in Congress to arms exports to Saudi Arabia. But, of course, there’s a new President coming in, and we can’t speculate over what President Trump will, or won’t do, particularly because he’s fairly unpredictable. But I’m not sure that breaking away from the long-term US foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia is particularly high on his agenda. KIM BROWN: So, Andrew, in your opinion, what is the role of the British weapons industry in shaping British policy, foreign policy especially? ANDREW SMITH: Well, the arms industry is actually a very small industry, in terms of the amount of people employs. UK arms exports account for roughly 0.2% of jobs in the UK economy. However, the arms trade lobby has always had a particularly loud voice in the corridors of power, and it’s had a particularly strong influence in the corridors of power. We see this through the lobbying which it does. We see this through the kind of large-scale social events, which it brings MPs along to every single year. And it has had a strong role in helping to shape foreign policy. A few years ago, Robin Cook, who was our former Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair’s Administration, released an autobiography in which he said that Blair would never make a foreign policy decision without BAE Systems being on board first. And he said that characterized BAE Systems, which is Europe’s largest arms company, of having the backdoor key to Downing Street. But I don’t think he was talking literally. I don’t think they did have a backdoor key. But the point he was making was that they would be consulted and that they would be very heavily involved in the decision-making process. And I have no doubt that they carry just as strong an influence with Theresa May’s government, as they have with previous governments. KIM BROWN: So, the British government released its first annual report of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review. Now this report calls for the increased arms sales to the Gulf Arab dictatorships, increasing a military presence in Eastern Europe, while also warning against the threat of large-scale migration. And Jeremy Corbyn recently questioned the UK Prime Minister in Parliament, about the security and strategy of the UK and this was what was said. JEREMY CORBYN: I remain concerned at the heart of this government’s security strategy also is apparently increased arms exports to the very part of the world that most immediately threatens the security. The British Government continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen, which has been clearly detailed by the UN and other independent agencies. Will the Prime Minister commit today to halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have been used to prosecute this war in Yemen with the humanitarian devastation that has resulted from that? THERESA MAY: I think he used… implied, that it was a threat to the safety of people here in the UK. Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, on issues like dealing with terrorism, on counter-terrorism issues. It is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe. KIM BROWN: So, Andrew, what can you tell us about this recently published report on the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review? ANDREW SMITH: There are a few points to make. The first one is, that at present, roughly two-thirds of UK arms exports go to the Middle East. So, there isn’t a particularly large potential for growth, but that’s already a region which has far too many weapons and far too many conflicts. And it’s certainly not a region in which we should be pouring any more weapons into. On the point about if arming Saudi Arabia keeps the streets of Britain safe, that’s a line, which gets used a lot. But, actually, Saudi Arabia is UN-bound to share information about terrorism with the UK and others. And we couldn’t get to a point where the only way we would cooperate with governments, is if they happen to be buying large quantities of weapons off us. That would be absolutely stupid. It would be ludicrous. And so, I think that’s a very bogus argument. I think it’s one which is getting used a lot, but it’s one which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What is very concerning about the report is it effectively commits to a foreign policy, which we have seen over the last 15 years, which is one which has got militarism at its core. It’s one which has an interventionism at its core. It’s one which has arms exports at its core, and none of those things are making the Middle East safer, and they’re certainly not making the UK any safer. KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Andrew Smith. He is the spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the CAAT. He’s also written for a range of political magazines and national publications and he’s currently involved in legal action, his organization is, against the UK government that is challenging the legality of British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Andrew, we really appreciate you joining us to enlighten us on this issue. Thank you. ANDREW SMITH: Thank you. KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network. ————————- END