It was one year ago that a triumphant Theresa May proudly announced from Ankara, Turkey, that the UK is “open for business.”
She had reason to be upbeat. The UK prime minister had just secured a £100m arms deal that meant lots of money for ‘defence’ and ‘security’ manufacturer BAE, and some positive headlines about the UK’s post-Brexit future. The deal, she said, “[would mark] the start of a new and deeper trading relationship.”
May didn’t just use her visit to sell arms though. She also used it to reaffirm her support for the President Erdogan, who, by that point, had already instigated a crackdown that had seen thousands of public sector workers purged from their jobs.
There was no shortage of information available to her about the state of human rights in Turkey. Six months prior to her visit, Amnesty International, and others, had extensively documented the return of torture and abuse in Turkish prisons.
The situation has only got worse since, with a disputed referendum result further centralising power with Erdogan. There are more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any other country, and over 160 news organisations have been closed in the last 18 months. In recent days, over 300 people have been arrested by the Turkish authorities for criticising the ongoing intervention into Afrin.
The UK government’s position was reinforced by Foreign Office Minister, Alan Duncan, shortly after the visit. “I accept that the scale of people being arrested is massive and needs to be justified” he said, “but we have made it very clear that we need to deepen our bilateral relationship.”
With the Erdogan regime dragging Turkey even further down the path towards authoritarianism, the message May has sent loudly and clearly is that UK arms are for sale and it doesn’t matter who’s buying.
UK arms to human rights abusing regimes up nearly a third since Brexit vote
It’s not just Turkey that has seen an upswing in political and military support from the UK since 2016’s Brexit vote. In fact, analysis from Campaign Against Arms Trade and i News found that the value of UK arms being licensed to human rights abusing regimes and dictatorships has increased by almost one third since the referendum.
Liam Fox has made 35 overseas trips since his appointment as International Trade Secretary in mid-2016. Many of these have been for mutual fawning and photo-opportunities with leaders with appalling human rights records.
In his first few months alone he had fitted in visits to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. There is no doubt that arms sales were on the agenda, with all of these regimes having pride and place on the Department of International Trade’s list of ‘priority markets’ for arms exports.
The Gulf focus was also emphasised by May, who, in December 2016, used a visit to Bahrain for the Gulf Cooperation Council to call for even closer ties to the region.
“We should seize the opportunity to get out into the world and to shape an even bigger global role for my country: yes, to build new alliances but more importantly, to go even further in working with old friends, like our allies here in the Gulf.”
These grovelling visits haven’t just been about military support, they have also sent a clear message of political support and an endorsement on the world stage. The regimes will view them as a stamp of approval, but they are a slap-in-the-face for their victims.
Last year, Fox was rightly criticised for lauding what he described as the UK’s “shared values” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, a man that has sanctioned thousands of extrajudicial killings, which he justified as part of a war on drugs.
Duterte is hardly a stranger to controversy, having used sexist and degrading language about Barack Obama’s mother, and even (non-ironically) likened himself to Hitler. Quite which of these values Liam Fox believes that he shares is unclear.
Flying the flag and arming the world
The extent of Whitehall’s priorities was revealed last October by the then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who, in a moment of candor, warned MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee that criticism of the Saudi regime “is not helpful” when it comes to cementing arms deals.
Fallon’s comments were shocking, but perhaps unsurprising. Only two months earlier, he had used a keynote speech at the government-supported DSEI arms fair to promise that, when it came to arms sales, the Ministry of Defence would use Brexit as an opportunity to “spread its wings across the world.”
It’s not just Fallon. In the government’s post-Brexit green paper, increasing arms exports was included as a key point in its industrial strategy. It also announced the MoD will work with arms companies to develop a programme to “enhance support for exports.”
These objectives are shared by the arms industry, with the Aerospace, Defence & Security Group, a trade body for arms companies, telling Bloomberg that “Europe will continue to be important, but there are perhaps other areas where there is now a bigger incentive to develop longer-term relationships... Brexit provides the circumstances and the catalyst for faster and more efforts.”
These goals are out of step with public opinion on both sides of the Brexit debate. Poll after poll has shown that irrespective of our views on the UK’s constitutional status, the overwhelming majority of us want to see the UK working to advance the causes of human rights and democracy across the world, not propping up and supporting dictatorships and human rights abusers.
Theresa May has said that her vision of Brexit will be one that focuses on “the good we can do together in the world as a global Britain.” However, any Brexit that prioritises arms sales and building ever-closer relationships with human rights abusers is one that can only contribute to war, conflict and the further erosion of freedom for people around the world.