Leading article: Britain has no business arming repressive regimes

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The Independent Online

Asked yesterday whether he was embarrassed that British weapons had been sold to the Bahrain regime, which this week violently suppressed a peaceful protest, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, sought safety in evasion, saying: "We have no evidence they have used that equipment."

This sums up perfectly the moral blindness of Britain's official attitude towards arms exports. Early on Thursday, Bahraini security forces fired on unarmed protesters in the capital, Manama. The ferocious assault – with tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun pellets – killed four people and injured hundreds.

It is true we have no evidence that the arms they used in this particular operation were provided by Britain. But given that British firms were granted licences last year to export a plethora of crowd-control weapons to the Gulf state, that is a reasonable assumption.

"We do not sell material to other countries that are likely to be used for internal repression," Mr Hague asserted yesterday. But given the nature of the Bahraini regime, what else would these weapons be used for? Bahrain is an autocracy. A Sunni minority represses a Shia majority. Political reform enacted a decade ago was a sham. The Coalition knew all this when it waved through these exports. British-manufactured military equipment and crowd-control hardware have also been sold to Libya, Algeria and Saudi Arabia since the Coalition took power at the last election. This Government apparently regards private profits at home as more valuable than human rights abroad.

In fairness, the previous Labour government was just as bad. Labour came to power in 1997 promising an "ethical" foreign policy after years of cynical realpolitik from the Conservatives. But Tony Blair, too, ended up putting the interest of British arms manufacturers before the interest of repressed people across the Middle East. The former prime minister blocked an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into BAE's dealings with the Saudi Arabian government in 2006. The excuse given by Mr Blair for this interference in the rule of law was that the investigation would have jeopardised UK-Saudi counter-terrorism co-operation. Yet one of the calculations made by Mr Blair was that the investigation would have damaged the British defence industry, with the Saudi regime threatening to withdraw its custom from Britain's largest arms manufacturer.

And still the unethical policy continues. While Mr Hague mouths platitudes about encouraging greater freedom in the Middle East, scores of British companies are expected to converge on the Idex arms fair which opens in Abu Dhabi tomorrow.

The pattern of business has been established for decades: the West buys oil from Gulf regimes; Gulf regimes use the funds to buy arms from Western manufacturers. This arrangement keeps the Gulf autocrats feeling secure and boosts employment and profits in Western nations. But the democratic stirrings in the Arab world in recent weeks have thrown a spotlight on this corrupt relationship.

Britain needs to wake up to the reality that arming repressive autocrats abroad is, in the end, a bad business all round.