Less than two months ago the Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombed a hospital in Yemen killing 11 persons and wounding 19 others. It was a hospital that was being assisted by the reputed French organisation Médecins Sans Frontière. Reports say the air attacks are increasingly targeting places normally used by civilians. The previous week coalition aircraft [...]


Double standards? Oh no, we’re British


Less than two months ago the Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombed a hospital in Yemen killing 11 persons and wounding 19 others. It was a hospital that was being assisted by the reputed French organisation Médecins Sans Frontière.
Reports say the air attacks are increasingly targeting places normally used by civilians. The previous week coalition aircraft bombed a food factory and a school.

British-manufactured cluster-bombs are being used by Saudi-led coalition forces in the Yemeni civil war where civilians are being slaughtered.

Earlier in May, British media reports said that a British-manufactured cluster-bomb was found in a Yemeni village, all but confirming that banned weapons are being used by Saudi-led coalition forces in the Yemeni civil war where civilians are being slaughtered. But this tragedy in a forgotten corner of the world is overshadowed by the attention focused on the devastating conflict in Syria which the west blames others for ignoring its own sordid role.

The BL-755 cluster bomb found in the village is designed to be dropped by British manufactured Tornado jets used by the Saudi Arabian Air Force though these highly controversial weapons had been used in conflict some decades ago.

That is not all. Amnesty International, the human rights organization, has said that it had discovered Brazilian, US and UK made cluster bombs in use in the Yemeni war where coalition forces are attacking rebel-held areas on behalf of the Yemeni government.

Amnesty International discovered the unexploded munition during an inspection of a village in northern Yemen. The weapon, originally manufactured in the 1970s by a Bedfordshire company called Hunting Engineering, contains 147 ‘bomblets’ which scatter across a wide area, but often do not detonate until they are disturbed at a later date, often by unsuspecting civilians picking them up. One man, who herds goats in a village in Hajjah governorate about six miles from the Saudi Arabia border, told Amnesty: “In the area next to us, there are bombs hanging off the trees,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reported then.

Britain which ratified a 2008 international convention banning the use of cluster bombs has destroyed its own stocks. But the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Brazil have not ratified it.

The British-manufactured cluster bomb found in Yemen was probably part of stocks of weapons sold in the 1980s and 1990s. But the fact is that the banned bombs are still in use and are dropped from British supplied aircraft in arms deals with Saudi Arabia which are still continuing.

There was a huge international hue and cry when pictures of a cluster bomb supposedly found in a theatre of war during the violent conflict with the LTTE became public. Whether the pictures produced were actually of a bomb found in Sri Lanka’s north and whether it has been so established I do not know.

But the issue is this. Those who preach to us about human rights and hold Sri Lanka accountable for what they perceive as violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws are the very people who violate them with impunity.
Quite recently a joint committee of the House of Commons claimed that UK-made arms are being used in indiscriminate bombing raids on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition involved in neighbouring Yemen. The committee said that one of the attacks resulted in the death of 47 civilians including 21 women and 15 children when a wedding party at a house was struck by missiles from military aircraft.

Chris White, the chairman of the Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) said that Britain had led the way in setting up international humanitarian laws to govern arms sales. He said an inquiry by his committee had been presented with evidence by respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used contravening international humanitarian law.

The chairman was insistent that the British government can no longer wait as the House Foreign Affairs Committee wishes to do, but take urgent action to stop the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. The government should not wait to make sure that there is no risk of a violation.

As chairman he called for an independent inquiry into the circumstances relating to several incidents in Yemen including allegations of the use of cluster bombs. Would the British government agree to an independent inquiry as sought by the chairman of five committees of the Commons? Not on your sweet life, it would not.

Yet when it comes to Sri Lanka, Britain and the US in particular have no hesitation in calling for independent inquiries. In fact, they would like to see foreigners sitting in judgment whereas they would not countenance even their own citizens being appointed to such an inquiry into UK’s own actions.

The urgency behind the committee’s call for an independent inquiry and the humanitarian concerns that they find worrying follows numerous reports from the field about the violations of international law and the suffering of the civilian population in the rebel-held areas of Yemen.

Kristine Beckerle, an expert on Yemen with Human Rights Watch, said the war, and particularly the Saudi-led coalition’s actions, had been devastating for civilians. “Over the last few days, we’ve seen Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on a factory, a school, and now, another MSF-supported hospital,” she said.

“These strikes follow a year and a half’s worth of unlawful attacks on schools, markets, hospitals, and factories. It’s unacceptable, and only underscores the need to immediately suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it curbs its unlawful airstrikes in Yemen and credibly investigate those that have already occurred.”

But Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have brushed aside calls for the government to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is interesting to note that the Conservative Government has licensed £5.6 billion in sales of arms, fighter jets and other military hardware to Saudi Arabia since David Cameron became prime minister in 2010.
Research by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) shows that in the six years since Cameron’s election the UK has sold weapons to 24 of the 27 states included in its Foreign Office list of “countries of humanitarian concern”.
Even more interesting perhaps is this. On the “countries of concern” list is Sri Lanka. “Vice News” reported in March 2015 that one of the countries that would benefit from UK arms exports would be Sri Lanka. Please note that this was when the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was in power and the British government was carrying out an international campaign against it for its war against the LTTE and for human rights abuses.

The Committee of MPs who inquired into UK arms sales discovered that “strategically controlled items” had been sold to Sri Lanka. Although the monetary value might be relatively small-£ 8 m- the Colombo government had been issued with 49 licences and the seeds for many of these sales were sown by the Labour Party governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The items included 600 assault rifles.

What this indicates is that while the British governments were castigating Sri Lanka for all sorts of crimes and violations of international law, it was ready to sell “strategically controlled items” whatever that might mean. But Sri Lanka was not the only ‘listed’ country over human rights concerns that benefited from arms sales. There was also Iran, China, Russia, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

Speaking in London in February this year Ban-Ki Moon, the UN secretary general, urged states such as Britain to “set an example in fulfilling one of the [arms trade] treaty’s main purposes: controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law”.

Does this worry the UK which is constantly preaching homilies to weaker and more vulnerable countries while selling arms to them to kill each other? If Blair (who led the country into war but is unlikely to end up before a war crimes trial) and Brown sold arms to countries that are suppressing their own people and killing their neighbours, the Conservative government of David Cameron and now Theresa May have no qualms about continuing the same tradition while praying for peace in the world.

In early September in parliament, Prime Minister May resolutely defended arms sales to Saudi Arabia insisting that close bilateral cooperation with the Saudi kingdom was “helping keep people on the streets of Britain safe”. That sure is a hell of an argument, just like Blair’s argument that Iraq must be bombed back to the stone-age because it was a threat to British interests.

If the streets of Britain are not quite safe today one of the reasons is that the UK is aiding and abetting authoritarian regimes particularly in the Middle East to deny human rights to their people and providing arms to such countries to crush their own people.

It is time that the UK (and US), without blaming the rest of world for the mess that exists especially in the Gulf region, accept that there is a fundamental disconnect between vigorously pursuing arms deals with authoritarian regimes for monetary and political gain while at the same time criticizing their lack of human rights.

That is mega hypocrisy.

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