Jeremy Corbyn announced on Tuesday that, under a Labour government, schoolchildren would be taught about the injustice and violence of the British Empire. Labour also promised to promote a “new internationalism” and a progressive foreign policy, as outlined in its recent manifesto.
In response, the Conservatives claimed it was “staggering” to hear Labour “lecture people” about foreign affairs. And yet the Conservatives have not been remotely clear about foreign policy or defense when outlining their own election pledges. Reviewing the conduct of the May–Johnson governments since the last election in June 2017, this should come as no surprise.
The government’s own figures reveal that, over the past two years, “telecommunications interception equipment” has been exported to the law enforcement agencies of authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Qatar. These sales are quite possibly unlawful (violating the UK’s own export control guidelines banning sales when there is a “clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression”) given what is known about how these states use such equipment.
For instance, the UAE has mounted attacks on journalists and activists via spyware sent on Twitter and spear-phishing emails. In July, the UK approved £1.9 million worth of the same equipment for export to Hong Kong, weeks after mass protests. Britain has recently established new military base facilities in Bahrain and Oman, and so sales of telecommunications equipment and arms are a sign of support for the Gulf regimes, aiding the longevity of the ruling families.
While the Conservatives have not discussed the issue during election season, in September, the government published a security export strategy, reviewing its intentions for surveillance and cybersecurity. It stressed that the UK is the world’s fourth-largest exporter and that the government would “accelerate the continued year on year growth of security exports,” benefiting the UK’s “vibrant security ecosystem.”
Pursuing this long-standing aim, Britain has enjoyed a strong relationship with the world’s longest surviving dictator, the sultan of Oman. In total, from 2015–18, the UK sold over £1.5 billion in arms to Oman, and even gifted it free spare parts (a “gift in kind”) for Challenger 2 tanks in 2018. The Times of Oman announced in April 2017 that BAE Systems had agreed to support Oman in developing a national workforce powered by STEM education.
Insights into the UK’s foreign policy endeavors don’t always come from such explicit, clear declarations as those found in the security export strategy. The Ministry of Defense mistakenly admitted in July the cost of a secret £2 billion program it runs for the Saudi royal family’s protection force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard Communications Project (SANGCOM).
Paid for by the Saudi regime, the program employs ten times as many people as Whitehall publicly admits. The £2 billion cost runs over ten years, agreed in February 2010, running right through the past decade of Conservative rule. SANGCOM directly implicates the UK in the defense of the Saudi regime.
The Conservatives have also conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council in the face of Riyadh’s human rights abuses. No ministers voiced concerns when Human Rights Watch reported earlier this month that “authorities had tortured four prominent Saudi women activists while in an unofficial detention centre, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, forcible hugging and kissing and groping.” The activists were released upon the condition that they sign a document declaring they had not been tortured.
Weapons Sales and Covert Wars
While Labour’s manifesto makes no mention of these ties (and also supports the Trident nuclear program, is dedicated to “at least 2% of GDP” going to military spending, and supports the UK’s “world-leading” defense industry), it does nevertheless commit Labour to banning all sales of arms to the Saudis, which would mean clear action against the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, in Yemen, where 80 percent of the population (24 million people) need assistance and protection.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ support for the war in Yemen continues even after it lost a major court case concluding that weapons sales to the Saudis were unlawful. Prime minister Boris Johnson said in 2018 (when he was foreign secretary) that “it is a folly and an illusion to believe that [the Yemen disaster] is in any way the responsibility of the United Kingdom,” despite continued UK arms sales to Riyadh. The Conservatives have also promoted strong ties between the arms industry and universities and museums, something that has elicited little comment in the media.
Another feature of the May–Johnson legacy is the UK’s current involvement in (at least) seven covert wars, mostly outside parliamentary oversight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Of course, these receive precious little oversight because it is government “policy not to comment, and to dissuade others from commenting or speculating, about the operational activities of Special Forces because of the security implications.”
In February 2018, the UK doubled the size of its Special Air Service (SAS) force in Afghanistan, fighting alongside US troops tasked with killing Taliban commanders. Following President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of the country, in March 2019, the Pentagon asked UK special forces to contribute to counter-terrorism operations, and the UK shows no signs of exiting the country.
In Iraq, hundreds of British troops are engaged in covert combat operations, including around thirty SAS and Special Boat Service (SBS) troops. UK Reaper drones continue to fly over the country. The Conservative government has also supported the United States’ drone campaign in Pakistan, which continues to the present, with the Menwith Hill spy base in Yorkshire facilitating these strikes.
In Syria, an estimated 120 UK special forces continue to operate. In April 2018, Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle asked the government which armed opposition groups it had trained since 2012. The government replied that it had only trained the opposition from 2015 for combat against the Islamic State, yet reports indicate that training started in 2012 and was mainly for the purposes of operations against Assad’s forces.
The Conservatives have misled the public about UK involvement in Syria in other ways: Lord Tariq Ahmad told Parliament that the decision to conduct joint US-UK airstrikes in Syria on April 14, 2018 “was only taken because all non-military options had been exhausted.” Yet on April 10, the UN Security Council discussed a range of draft resolutions aiming to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The first draft, presented by the United States, proposed the establishment of a yearlong UN procedure to identify those responsible. Russia vetoed the draft and proposed a new draft that would have established a similar mechanism, but one that would have used evidence collected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This was vetoed by the United States and the UK, making Lord Ahmad’s comment misleading at best.
In January of this year, a group of twelve SAS and US Green Berets were flown into Yemen from Djibouti, dressed in Arab clothing and sent to operate near the government-held town of Marib. The UK has recently embedded its special forces inside the armed forces of other nations, so they could participate in (potentially illegal) forms of conflict worldwide, with the Conservatives remaining tight-lipped about the identity of collaborating nations.
A Global Britain
The government has slightly shifted its priorities over recent years, with serious consequences for defense and security. Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said in 2015 that human rights did not maintain the “profile” in the Foreign Office that they had “in the past.” Instead, the “prosperity agenda” was the priority.
After the 2016 Brexit vote, senior ministers announced their intentions to increase the value of arms and defense equipment in attempts to remain competitive. Naturally, Britain now aims to cement new relationships with non-European Union states. The difficulties arise over which states, and since the Brexit vote, a large number of authoritarian and often dictatorial regimes have been in the government’s sights.
As David Wearing documents in AngloArabia, alliances with the Gulf states are central to Britain’s post-Brexit economic strategy and its aims of maintaining its global status. Bolstering economic and diplomatic relationships through serving the military demands of the Gulf states helps Britain retain a degree of strategic control in the region.
Theresa May’s husband’s Capital Group is the biggest shareholder in BAE Systems, with the connections between the state and the arms trade being extensive and little known to the public. Arms exports are responsible for 1.6 percent of total UK exports in value, yet they receive 50 percent of export credit via loans or guarantees, assisted by the taxpayer.
The Royal Navy very openly declares its goals of “stabilising hotspots” and controlling resource-rich regions. Without the hindrance of the consultation and review processes associated with the EU Dual-Use Regulation, the EU Torture Regulation, and the EU Firearms Regulation, the UK might seek to push unethical arms sales. Indeed, in September 2016, Theresa May hosted the emir of Qatar, declaring his country a “natural partner,” and not long after British firms visited the Gulf state for the Milipol 2016 defense exhibition.
The government cleared export licenses worth £2.9 billion in the twelve months after June 2016 to thirty-five countries rated “not free” by the think tank Freedom House; a 28 percent increase on the previous twelve months. Among these states are Equatorial Guinea, widely considered deeply corrupt and repressive, and Azerbaijan, accused by a number of human rights groups of conducting a campaign against freedom of speech and for which £1 million in arms licenses were granted.
This is part of a more general push — made explicit by the government — to prioritize arms sales in Britain’s post-Brexit future, with former defense secretary Michael Fallon vowing that Britain would “spread its wings across the world” at DSEI, a major arms fair in September 2017. Liam Fox made visits to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait within the first few months into his appointment as international trade secretary in 2016; arms were very likely on the agenda.
One year later, Fox announced that the UK and the Philippines’ far-right president Rodrigo Duterte had “shared values” at the same time that human rights groups were condemning Duterte’s sanctioning of extra-judicial killings. Duterte has personally threatened to bomb schools preaching communism and regularly supports extrajudicial killings, making the “shared values” comment somewhat understandable given the UK’s recent history of Middle East and African interventions.
One of the main objectives of the Philippines in its military procurements is to isolate and defeat the Islamist Abu Sayyaf group in the south, as well as the Maoist New People’s Army and the Muslim Moros. Supporting the human-rights-abusing Duterte regime, the UK sold over £13 million in arms from 2015–18, according to figures from the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Throughout the current election season, the UK media has failed to scrutinize the major party leaders on their foreign policy views. In contrast to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Labour has vowed to end the “bomb first, talk later” approach to defense, placing human rights, international law, and tackling climate change at the forefront of international policies.
Labour aims to introduce a War Powers Act, ensuring that “no prime minister can bypass Parliament to commit to conventional military action.” In addition, it aims to “[c]onduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.”
These measures would redefine notions such as accountability, targeting an “elective dictatorship” (as Lord Hailsham termed the UK political system in 1976) in which no minister has so far been held to account for crimes abroad, in spite of wars, coups, covert missions, and support for human rights abuses.
Labour’s challenge to the UK’s military and defense establishment may transpire as curtailed and subdued, with potentially more emphasis on symbolic signs of solidarity rather than structural reforms — but it is leagues ahead of the Conservatives’ legacy of secrecy and support for authoritarianism.