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A Force For Good? Britain’s Overseas Military Alliances Held Up to Scrutiny

The prospect of a new post-Brexit Global Britain is a chance to be “a force for good in the world,” according to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in a Sunday Telegraph article he wrote just over a year ago. And the past year has shown that Mr Raab’s ambitions are certainly matched by those of the military.

On Wednesday [October 21], Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed the UK “is going to be more present, more forward-deployed and more active.” Where will such deployments be? Analysis of a recent speech from Britain’s highest-ranking officer, General Sir Nick Carter, suggests a choice of up to 80 countries.

Certainly, a Britain that aspires to rule the global waves is not new. Neither is the complex relationship between trade and the UK’s overseas military intervention. Sometimes the two are joined at the hip. Recent figures from the Department of International Trade revealed that Britain remains the world’s second-largest arms exporter, behind the US. Britain is already global, especially when it comes to selling weapons.

As the UK faces a post-Brexit future and a need to show that global trade can work, there has been a plethora of non-European militaries the UK seeks to partner with, both operationally and commercially; a diversity of choice that brings with it the ever thorny issue of human rights.

This courtship is in hyper-drive. This Monday [October 19] Lieutenant General Sir John Lorimer, arrived in Morocco to discuss military cooperation with senior domestic officials. He ignored the fact that last year, according to Amnesty International, Moroccan authorities harassed journalists and activists for expressing their views peacefully and used torture to gather evidence for prosecution.

Earlier this month, senior British military figures met both the commander of the Lebanese army and the Turkish Defence Minister. The Lebanese Armed Forces have repeatedly been condemned by human rights groups for the arbitrary arrest and torture of peaceful protesters, as well as the continual use of military courts to try civilians, including children. Turkey, a NATO ally, has overseen repeated repression of journalists and rights advocates.

Of course, having good diplomatic relations with countries whose militaries have committed human rights abuses is somewhat inevitable. Britain would have very few allies if they were so absolutist. And many point out it is easier to reform a friend than reform an enemy.

In Somalia, for instance, where civil war has been raging since the late 1980s, the UK endorses the national government and launched Operation TANGHAM in January 2017 to deliver training to the Somali National Army, including on human rights and the laws of armed conflict. At the time that TANGHAM began, Somali security forces were accused of a number of crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate attacks, murder, rape, and torture. But, by 2019, the UN had commended a 71% drop in civilian casualties involving the Somali National Army from the previous year, down to 37, compared to 128 in 2018.

This looks like a tangible good, achieved through a British military partnership. But not all of Britain’s collaborations are so progressive. If we consider Oman, an autocratic regime where the prison sentence for political dissent recently doubled to seven years, then Britain’s moral purpose for such a relationship becomes far hazier.

The British delegation of 86 loan service personnel to Oman, including a two-star general, is the largest the UK provides to any of its allies around the world. UK forces wear Omani uniforms and are funded by the Sultan, whilst remaining part of the British military. In 2015, one British Lieutenant Colonel took Omani military and police officers to Belfast for training in riot-control tactics. This despite the fact that, today, the Omani Internal Security Service (ISS) still targets and imprisons pro-reform activists.

Crisis capital

But, in the face of ‘making Brexit work’ and the economic fallout from this pandemic, the focus on human rights might be seen as a luxury by some. Charles Woodburn, the CEO of BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms manufacturer, recently urged the government to invest more in weapons production. Aside from the financial benefits, he argued arms sales “underpin diplomatic relations.”

Woodburn neatly failed to mention Saudi Arabia in his article, despite it being one of his best customers. The Kingdom is currently waging an air war over Yemen, in a conflict where their bombings are accused of more than 500 violations of International Humanitarian Law. Even a lawyer who recently helped fight legal action against the UK government’s export of arms there recently decried her work, saying “I did not become a lawyer in order to justify the moral depravity that is the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.”

But, as the government undertakes its Integrated Review – a roadmap for the UK’s future foreign policy, defence, security and international development – similar moral concerns seem absence. Instead, the British military frames the world as one where constant threat aligns with the potential for marketing opportunities and profit. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, accordingly stated there was a “market for a more persistent presence from the British Army” in the Far East. China is seen not just as a perceived threat to democracy, but that threat offers up a market opportunity, too.

This is worrying. As Britain sets down a path marketing its military around the world, it shouldn’t let the economic temptation of arms sales drown out the liberal ideal of Britain as a human rights advocate. In short, it should repeat its own example in Somalia and not repeat its mistakes in Oman or Saudi Arabia.