Arms deals buy our silence on human rights

One way of understanding war is to see it as capitalism with the gloves off. That certainly is how the hidden war in Yemen is being viewed by many charities and NGOs: Saudi Arabia and 13 other wealthy Arab states have been bombarding one of their poorest neighbours to stop the Yemenis from becoming an ally of Iran. In doing so this Riyadh-led coalition against Shia insurgents is fuelling an arms bonanza in Britain; it may be hitting factories in Yemen but it’s securing jobs in the midlands. More than £2.8 billion of British arms orders have been authorised for delivery to Saudi Arabia since bombing began 17 months ago.

There is a real chance that this proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran will escalate. Saudi Arabia is growing tired of the expense of fighting the Houthi rebels who, aligned with the forces loyal to the disgraced president Ali Abdullah Saleh, occupy the capital Sanaa. Frustrated by the slow pace of peace talks, the Saudis could make a new military push or they could try to partition Yemen. Either way the 6,000 or so civilians who have already died might turn out to be the harbinger of something even worse. And our kit and contracted advisers will be in the thick of it because, well, that’s the way we do business now.

The hard reality of Brexit is that foreign policy will have to become more mercantilist. The surest sign of this is the appointment of the tin-hatted Realpolitiker Liam Fox as international trade supremo, the erstwhile co-founder of an outfit called Atlantic Bridge, which networked furiously with neo-conservatives in the United States.

Britain’s new global positioning will involve bushy-tailed attempts to deepen co-ordination with the US. The talk is of twinning trade talks with the US with a new transatlantic security pact. Counterterrorism and cyber-defence are being talked up too, not just to shield western lives and interests but as a gilded business opportunity. The new post-Brexit foreign policy taking shape is also post-Chilcot and post-Trident renewal. It is about projecting strength but also about merchandising it.

Forget The Night Manager and a dozen Le Carré villains; the sleazy arms trader as an early 21st-century archetype is about to get a makeover. The defence sector is by definition global; it spots openings, it creates jobs at home. What’s not to like? It will be at the spearhead of the new May-ian civilisation. The place to see and be seen for political fast-laners? The Farnborough air show and its array of precision weaponry made in Britain.

Yemen, though seemingly marginal to British interests, is thus at their very core. Indeed there has been a Whitehall proxy war underway, with the parliamentary international development committee demanding that the government focus on the victims of Saudi bombing. British munitions, charities said, were crashing down on markets, mosques and medical centres. What was the point of giving aid to Yemen and then selling weaponry to Saudis that flattens towns? Arms should not be sold to a country that flouts international humanitarian law.

The (Cameron) government was pressed for answers and tied itself in knots. First written responses from the Foreign Office (FCO) suggested Britain was looking into whether the Saudis were violating humanitarian law. Then these responses had to be corrected: Britain it seemed wasn’t in the business of holding its valued customers to account. “We encourage the Saudis,” came the adjusted FCO position, “to conduct their own investigations to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the breaches are by the Houthis or by the Saudi Arabians.”

This is the way things are likely to unfold from now on. The report from the Saudi-led coalition is just in. Yes, World Food Programme trucks were hit — but that’s because they were not properly marked. The hospital that was hit by shrapnel? That was down to the Houthi rebels who had positioned an arms dump 1,300 metres away. Sometimes it admits to faulty intelligence and promises to compensate the families of victims, but for the most part the Saudis say they are running a clean operation.

Since the precision weapons are British and American, since there are western expert contractors present in the Riyadh operations room, we accept them at their word. Anything else would be bad for business: Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-largest defence spender, our largest purchaser of arms. Are we going to be the ones that say Saudi pilots are cross-eyed? Or that our weapons are fatally imprecise? No.

Only in a dream world would we stop selling arms to non-democratic states that support western strategic goals. If we stopped doing so, Russia would all too readily step in — intensifying rather than reducing the instability of the Middle East

The problem then is of a different order: do we surrender all nuanced diplomacy in the name of a trade-first foreign policy? Are human rights issues now doomed if they risk interfering with major commercial relationships? I fear so.

Expect then a readjustment in British foreign policy in which human rights drift almost entirely out of the frame. Our trading future hinges more than ever before on unpalatable governments: on the Egypt of President Sisi, say, or the Turkey of President Erdogan. Our public criticism of these countries, one can safely bet, will become muffled. Great is truth, says Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, but still greater is silence about truth.

Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author.

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