Today’s UK Observer editorial urges Britain not to sell weapons to autocrats. Good advice but no mention of course of the seemingly never-ending sale of deadly munitions to Israel in its daily war against the Palestinians:
When it comes to approving the sale of arms to unpleasant regimes, as the cases of Bahrain and Libya displayed depressingly last week, British governments, Labour and coalition, have been deeply selective in what they profess to know about human rights abuses and their criteria for refusal. It is to be welcomed that the government has now revoked the licences, but in the case of Bahrain there should have been no excuse. In the past two years, as each batch of new arms licences was waved through, Bahrain’s government and its National Security Service committed well-documented abuses. In 2009, Bahraini police used shotguns twice to disperse people demonstrating against the seizure of their land by the military. Last year, in the run-up to elections, 250 opposition activists were arrested on “terrorism” charges.
It is not only human rights organisations and opposition groups that have documented Bahrain’s decline into being an authoritarian regime after a number of years in the last decade when it appeared to forswear the use of torture. In 2009, even the US State Department – not always the most reliable documenter of abuses – noted that Bahrain had reinstituted the use of torture, including beatings and electric shocks, a finding confirmed both by the country’s own courts and Human Rights Watch a year later.
This leads to the question of what precisely are the criteria – the “strictest in the world”, according to foreign secretary William Hague – that allowed the sale of weapons to a torturing regime with a recent history of using shotguns for crowd control and which claimed five lives on Thursday morning at the Pearl Roundabout.
This weekend, as British arms manufacturers show their wares at the Idex arms fair in Abu Dhabi, seems a good moment to reflect on precisely to whom we sell. A properly enforced blanket ban on those who use torture, lock up political opponents and use guns on protesters would be a place to start, regardless of the economic cost.