The UK government’s recent decision to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s alleged war crimes in Yemen once again illustrates the absurdity of the claim that democracy and human rights are inseparable. While this claim may have some relevance in the domestic political arenas, it seems to have little to no connection with the dark realities of the international system where ‘national interest’ holds supreme. For the UK government, deciding to resume sales of arms to the Saudi government is nothing more than an unabated pursual of core ‘national interests’, even if doing so produces highly questionable results, including potential war crimes.
Whereas the UK government claimed that the UK supplied weapons were “misused” in Yemen, it mainly said that the instances of “misuse” were only “isolated incidents, having no pattern and/or a connection with an actual Saudi policy” of indiscriminate killings to force the Houthis into submission. Regardless of the fact that the UK government chose to brush aside over 500 such “isolated instances” and found no pattern, even the investigation it did seems to have purposefully excluded the evidence provided by independent actors, working on the ground in Yemen.
For example, on 11 August 2019, GLAN and Mwatana, two human rights organistaions, submitted substantial information directly to the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, along with a legal letter setting out why it was necessary to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The report, spread over 288 pages, says the Saudi attacks appear to violate international humanitarian law by “targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”. In many cases, its evidence, gathered very soon after Saudi bomb strikes, directly contradicts the post-strike investigations conducted by the Saudi-led coalition. No wonder, the UK government’s decision was not informed by the information collected independently; for, the UK government bases its decisions on whether or not to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia on information provided to it by Saudi Arabia itself.
For instance, when Boris Johnson, who was then UK’s foreign secretary, defended UK arms sales to Saudi in 2016 and argued that the UK supplied weapons were not being used in war crimes, he based his judgement on a Saudi-led inquiry into eight controversial incidents, including the bombing of hospitals. The report, published on August 4, 2016, largely defended the bombing runs on the basis that the Saudis had received credible intelligence that enemy Houthi forces were in the area. This ‘investigation’ had obviously exonerated the Saudi government, allowing the UK government to claim that nothing wrong and criminal was happening in Yemen, thus revealing the total absurdity of the investigation that the UK government recently did only to resume arms sales.
It would, therefore, not be wrong to contend that there was never any chance that the outcome of the current UK investigation could be other than a full resumption of sales; for, arms sales, disregarding human rights and lives, are structurally rooted in the western capitalist ‘democratic’ system.
As it stands, the UK has increased its arms sales to ‘repressive regimes’ all over the world, adding around 10 billion GBP to the revenue since 2015. Over £5billion of sales were to Saudi Arabia, including fighter jets, missiles, bombs and rifles, some of which were used in a brutal airstrike campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. In 2019, the UK sold £1.3bn worth of weapons to 26 of the 48 countries that are classed as “not free.” In 2018, the UK sold £173m worth of arms to states on the UK Foreign Office list of “human rights priority countries” – nations identified as having human rights issues. In 2019, the sale reached £849m, an increase of 390%.
Given that sale of arms is a lucrative business, the UK government could only be expected to defend it. It was not surprising at all to see the UK trade minister, Greg Hands, refusing to reveal to the House of Commons as to how many bombing incidents had been actually reviewed by the UK. He also rejected the idea of publishing any UK government reports on individual Saudi strikes, explaining how the so-called “isolated incidents” were or were not incidents of human rights violations and war crimes.
The UK government’s plain refusal to make investigation transparent as well as its failure to find a pattern in the 500 highly questionable strikes strongly show a desire to not suspend sales to Saudia.
Whereas such a policy does encourage blood-shed, it also shows that within the political economy of defence and defence production, ideas of human rights, war crimes and transparency have little to no relevance. Indeed, such ideas are tactfully deployed by the western ‘democratic’ states only to malign the rival states. If the case had been otherwise, even 500 “isolated incidents” would have triggered a far more exacting and stringent response than a simple and straightforward resumption of sales.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”