“Britain has been increasing sales to Uzbekistan of equipment with potential military use, despite condemnation of its human rights record by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw. Export licences have been approved for “strategic exports” ever since Uzbekistan became an ally in the “war on terror”. The government said last year it approved export licences for “armoured personnel carriers”, which could be used for internal repression.”

The Guardian reports that British actions are contradictory. In one breath, Blair’s government condemns human rights abuses in the country while at the same time doesn’t want to upset the US relationship with Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Britain’s hypocrisy is nothing new. In 2000 it was revealed that the country was licensing the export to Zimbabwe of spare parts for Hawk aircraft. Such activity was likely to allow the Zimbabwe government to continue its deadly bombing runs in the Congo. The editor of Zimbabwe’s non-governmental newspaper, the Zimbabwe Independent, said the sale was prompted “purely” by economic considerations. “The British government”, he said, “was opposed to Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Congo war and is opposed to human rights abuses perpetrated by the Mugabe regime, but it is willing to support the Mugabe government by selling it arms.” The British government finally buckled under public pressure and revoked all licences to Mugabe’s dictatorship.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave a famous speech in 1997 where he discussed a new era in foreign policy:

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour Government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy…”

The reality, however, was far different. Despite the Guardian still offering support for Cook’s message in 2001, a 1997 BBC interview with Cook revealed the real pragmatism behind the policy. He was forced to admit Britain was still selling military hardware to Indonesia although was assured the arms would not be used against the still occupied East Timorese. British oil companies were operating in Burma as Cook lamely defended his government’s high ideals. Cook did indeed resign from the Blair government over the Iraq war and became a constant critic of Britain’s obedience to the US but his principles were sorely lacking while in government.

British historian Mark Curtis has written extensively on Britain’s largely secret trade in arms. He said in 2004:

“It has always struck me that many people on the British left know far more about US foreign policy horrors than those committed by this country. This is, perhaps, unsurprising since the mainstream media and British academics systematically keep the public in the dark about such abuses.”

Curtis then revealed the litany of arms sales to numerous countries around the world both before and after Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” speech. These included:

2001: British arms exports to Israel are twice those for the year before, reaching …£22.5m as Israel steps up aggression in the occupied territories.

2002: Britain gives …£3m military aid to Nepal, whose forces are responsible for the majority of deaths in a vicious civil war with Maoist rebels.

May 2003: Indonesia intervenes in Aceh province, using British aircraft and tanks.

June 2003: Amid mounting violence, rigged elections in Chechnya are welcomed by Britain as Russia widens its war in the Caucasus to the neighbouring Russian republic Ingushetia.

June 2003: With human rights atrocities by government and allied forces proliferating in Colombia, Britain organises international donors to increase support to the government of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez, and steps up covert military aid to Bogota.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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