If we truly value the special relationship, we must not be a party to Donald Trump's violence against the American people
Black Lives Matter protesters on Whitehall earlier this week
Peaceful protesters are being tear-gassed, beaten, pepper-sprayed and blinded by rubber bullets. We have not just a moral but a legal duty to act.
When an overseas government takes up arms against its own people, the natural and correct reaction of most British ministers is to condemn their actions, and urge them to stop.
Unfortunately, when they get back to their desks, there is all too often a civil service memo waiting for the minister, gently pointing out that the arms the overseas government is using were sold to them by Britain. That in turn usually prompts an undignified scramble to suspend licences for those arms exports, before the accusations of hypocrisy become too loud and embarrassing.
Nine years ago, during the Arab Spring, we saw that sequence of events played out in respect of Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Egypt. Three years ago, we saw it in Myanmar and Venezuela. And this time last year, the government belatedly suspended the export of ‘crowd control equipment’ to Hong Kong following police violence against democracy protesters.
But what of the United States? Despite the callous murder of George Floyd; despite all the evidence of police brutality against unarmed civilians; and despite the horrific threats of Donald Trump to tackle peaceful protests with military force, there has not so far been a peep of criticism from Boris Johnson’s government.
That is no surprise. Johnson’s shameful indulgence of Trump has been a matter of policy since 2016, born of the belief that it is better to stay in the President’s tent, no matter what indignities we must suffer there.
But when it comes to the export of so-called ‘crowd control’ equipment to the US, the government should not – in theory, and in the current circumstances – have a choice. The law states that arms and equipment must not be licensed for export “if there is a clear risk that items might be used for internal repression.”
Last year, the government approved exports to US military and law enforcement agencies of a wide variety of riot control ammunition and equipment, including riot shields, tear gas, CS and smoke canisters, riot guns, rubber bullets, irritant projectiles and stun grenades.
All items we have seen in extensive use by US police and national guard forces as part of their response to the unrest of the past week, whether to attack peaceful, unarmed protesters, to terrify small children, or to target members of the media.
I have therefore written to Liz Truss, who is ultimately responsible for signing off these export licences, to demand two simple answers to two simple questions. First, is ammunition and equipment made in the UK already being used as part of that response? And second, given Donald Trump’s threats to deploy the US military, is there a risk that UK riot control exports will be used by those forces?
If the answer to either or both of those questions is ‘yes’, then the legal position is clear: those export licences must be revoked.
If the answer is instead ‘We don’t know’, that itself is a breach of ministers’ responsibility to properly assess the risk of exports being misused before granting licences, and I have demanded that Liz Truss suspend the relevant exports at least until she is able to answer those questions.
Some will doubtless argue that, if UK-made riot control equipment is also being used to stop looting, destruction and violence, we have no reason to query its export. But that is not how our export control regime works. If the Saudi air force routinely attacks a mix of military and civilian targets in Yemen, the legitimacy of the former does not cancel out the illegality of the latter, as the British courts made clear a year ago.
Quite simply, if peaceful protesters are being tear-gassed and beaten in Washington, if children are being pepper-sprayed in Seattle, and if photo-journalists are being blinded by rubber bullets in Minneapolis, that is internal repression.
And if Britain is manufacturing and exporting the ammunition and equipment used to commit those acts, and the hundreds more we have seen this week, then the government has not just a moral but a legal obligation to revoke those export licences, and do so immediately.
In October 2011, then Foreign Secretary William Hague announced “a new mechanism to allow ministers to respond more rapidly and decisively...to unpredictable events”, with an “immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability...and no further licenses issued, pending ministerial or departmental review.”
The government must apply that same policy to the United States today, and if the only reason for not doing so is fear of upsetting Donald Trump, then that is no reason at all.
Our special relationship is not with the temporary occupant of the White House, but with the whole of the American people; and our historic alliance is not based on the short-term accommodation of one President, but on the enduring values that bind our two countries.
So if we truly believe in that relationship and that alliance, Britain must not be a party to the violence of Donald Trump against his own people, and against the values we both hold dear.
We must instead suspend those riot control exports without delay, and support the right of the American people to protest peacefully, freely and without fear.
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