Our Government’s sale of powerful surveillance equipment to repressive regimes jeopardises more than human rights

The UK has approved sales of £70m of surveillance equipment to countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt – carrying a high price for their citizens

Lloyd Russell-Moyle
Wednesday 07 March 2018 15:56 GMT
The trade department claims that it is ‘robustly’ regulating this trade fails to recognise the UK complicity in state-sponsored terrorism
The trade department claims that it is ‘robustly’ regulating this trade fails to recognise the UK complicity in state-sponsored terrorism

With the notable exception of people suspected of terrorism offences, Britons – although subject to blanket state eavesdropping – are safe from arbitrary arrest, torture or extrajudicial execution.

The same cannot be said for the citizens of dozens of states to which Britain is approving the sale of spy equipment, which can access people’s emails, phone records and turn smartphones into microphones.

Many of the countries the Government has sold these spy kits to have been defined as “priority markets”, and include Bahrain, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.

International delegations are currently in Britain for the government-sponsored annual surveillance week, which includes the Home Office’s Security and Policing event in Farnborough and the Security and Counter Terror Expo in London.

They will be chaperoned by British soldiers, paid by the taxpayer, to help sell the latest eavesdropping devices to the international delegations.

Middle Eastern nations are by far the biggest customers – a number of which have security services that operate with impunity and are known for disappearing NGOs, human rights activists and journalists.

The surveillance licences to Egypt are particularly concerning. Its military junta has removed legal impediments, thus allowing it to lock up people indefinitely and without trial. Tens of thousands of political prisoners remain in black sites where torture is routine and endemic. Egypt's leader has said it is treasonous to criticise the nation’s security services.

But Britain is selling to regimes that are just as troubling. A regular customer is the Philippines: a nation which for years has engaged in state-sponsored extrajudicial killings by death squads.

Sales continued even after the President Duterte announced a drug war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of drug addicts, who have been targeted by his secret police and associated vigilante groups.

Days after Baroness Anelay of St Johns visited Honduras, the first official trip by a UK minister in 15 years, the Tories issued a licence for telephone eavesdropping devices to Honduras’s ruling party, which is a member of the same international alliance of centre-right political parties as the Tories.

Months later, and after a very dodgy and disputed election, the government launched a brutal surveillance led-crackdown against those protesting its re-election. Dozens were killed.

Sales were even approved by the Government to Turkmenistan, the nearest thing you can get to a textbook example of an authoritarian dictatorship.

In theory, UK companies cannot export controlled goods to a state which might use them for internal repression, because it is illegal for the trade department to grant them a licence.

In practice, the Government routinely gives them a pass.

Since the failed Arab uprisings of 2011, BAE Systems has sold controlled surveillance kit to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Algeria. Spyware from another British firm, Gamma Group, has turned up in the hands of Egyptian and Bahraini state security police.

Both BAE and Gamma will be showcasing their wares this weekend, along with and dozens of other UK surveillance equipment vendors such as Oxford Wave Research and Panoptech, which tells its prospective clients that its “stable of products are changing the fabric of the law enforcement and counter-terrorism surveillance arena worldwide”.

The claims made by Liam Fox that his department is “robustly” and “seriously” regulating this trade fails to recognise the UK complicity in state-sponsored terrorism, and the silencing of a generation of Arabs.

Why are we doing this? When pressed, the boilerplate response from those who support the exporting of Britain’s surveillance state is that other countries need this kit to combat terrorism and / or narcotraffickers.

But surveillance alone is not a very good way to catch terrorists and organised criminals, who are in the surveillance arms race with national governments and ensure their communications remain encrypted or offline.

The people most impacted by blanket and invasive surveillance are thinkers, activists and anyone with an independent streak from the government.

The true reason comes down simply to realpolitik: we support our friends and we deny our enemies. Bahrain gets what Bahrain wants, although it has fallen out of democracy and has an awful human rights record, because it is paying for a new UK naval base on its territory.

Likewise, we rightly limit controlled goods to Iran – although not due to arms export law, but because Tehran is a historical adversary of the West.

The arms export laws implemented by Robin Cook in 2002 were not ever going to entirely take politics out of the arms trade, but they were designed to ensure human rights are not trampled over. The Government’s flouting of these laws is doing just that.

But the liberalisation and commercialisation of powerful surveillance technology jeopardises more than human rights.

Societies make progress because members of those societies deviate from the norms and sometimes the laws of their day. If they are successful, they are often retroactively commemorated by the same authorities which persecuted them at the time.

Turing, Mandela, Gandhi and Galileo are examples that spring to mind.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that progress is not a given, but something which needs to be fought for.

No government’s eye should be all-seeing, whether it be led by a field marshall or a prime minister.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown

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