Speak out for Libya

After decades of indifference, it seems strange that the West should now so suddenly develop a conscience concerning the welfare of Libyan civilians. Libyans have long suffered the tyranny of Gadaffi’s dictatorship, well-armed as it is by companies based in the ‘developed’ world. So why is it only now that those arms sales licenses have been cancelled?

According to the Guardian, the UK alone has sold just under £215 m of ‘controlled exports’ to Libya, which may include anything from radioactive material and jets to small arms and tear gas.  For example, over 24 million Euros worth of electronic equipment was sold to Gadaffi between 2005 and 2009. Another €2m was paid in exchange for military planes, nearly €9m in ground vehicles and €3m in rockets, bombs, and missiles. Ironic then that the British taxpayer should now be paying to disable the army it’s helped – through the United Kingdom Trade and Export department (UKTI) deals – to equip. William Hague’s ‘absolute condemnation’ of the use of lethal force in Libya is nothing more than political rhetoric that serves to pander to public opinion. The British Government has known for a long time of Gadaffi’s autocratic and brutal reign, and pretending otherwise – that suddenly we’re shocked and disgusted – is simple hypocrisy.

It is, of course, inevitable that some corrupt channels would eventually allow a dictator such as Colonel Gadaffi to arm themselves. We are not however discussing here if Gadaffi should or should not have weapons, that is another debate. What is of interest here is the UK’s proactive role in arming Gadaffi’s military, and exposing the hypocrisy of British government, thinly veiled as it is by sentimental displays of humanitarian compassion and empathy. This ‘caring’ portrayal of the UK government is profoundly undermined by the fact that the UKTI has 299 sub-departments, and 170 of them are allocated to the sale of armaments in the form of the Defence and Security Organisation (DSO), whose running costs are spuriously  unavailable. It is worth noting too that this organisation – paid for by British citizens – has the sole purpose of facilitating arms sales to foreign powers. Through the DSO, the UK approved licences for £12m worth of arms equipment to go to Libya in 2008, and a further £9m of goods were approved in the first three months of 2009. What’s more, Richard Paniguian, head of the DSO, confessed that in May 2008 at an arms symposium that there had been "high-level political intervention" to boost Britain's arms trade with Libya. Libya has not just been another customer of British arms companies then: the relationship has been specifically assisted by the British government. Until very recently – when the British government decided to change its stripes – Libya has been a “priority market”, which has been confirmed by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). Indeed, last November (2010), over half of the exhibitors at the Libyan Defence & Security Exhibition (LibDex) were UK companies.

But the British public are repeatedly told of the stringent conditions placed on who is allowed to buy weapons from arms companies based in our nation. In the words of Alistair Burt, the foreign office minister for the middle east and north Africa - "The longstanding British position is [that] we will not issue [arms] licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression." So how did Libya qualify as not having a clear risk of using the weapons to provoke internal conflicts? David Cameron himself described Gaddafi’s regime as “one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic" in the world. The criteria for a state free of ‘internal repression’ is clearly contingent on the amount of profit available from a good sale of ‘exports’. What’s more, Libya has a long history of supporting ‘terrorist’ groups, for instance in 1985 Libya sold semtex to the IRA. Libya’s regime has never been responsible; it has been a source of repressive autocracy for decades.

Nevertheless, the jubilation expressed by the rebels in Libya by coalition intervention should not be ignored. The intervention of the ‘coalition’ forces is indeed a welcome relief in avoiding immediate disaster on the ground in Libya. We should remain wary though. We must remain ever vigilant of the fact that Libya has the 8th largest confirmed oil reserves in the world, and that the UK government does not have a reputation for doing something for nothing. With the possibility of Gadaffi’s government falling there is huge potential for foreign companies exploiting resources which have – to a large extent – stayed underground due to the regime’s policy and lack of resources. It may be that the government of Britain is trying to have it both ways: be both peacemaker and profiteer. Let us watch cautiously how the situation develops, and ensure the natural wealth of Libya doesn’t fall into the bank accounts of multi-national corporations or private individuals. Let Libya’s natural wealth nourish her own people.

We can clearly see then that the recent withdrawal of 8 individual UK arms export licenses to Libya is worse than late. It may well be no more than a mere token gesture that will not benefit the Libyan people but rather serve to continue lulling the British public in docile acceptance of the status quo. It is high time that the British public no longer stands for its ministers facilitating the sale of arms on an international scale. So what can you do? Boycott arms companies’ subsidiaries, such as Rolls’ Royce. Meet with your MP, convince them to oppose DSO and the proposed opening of its predecessor DESO, and suggest they ask a question in parliament about the relevance of DSO in a ‘developed’ government. Lastly, continue to cultivate an interest in this world, which is your own. The potential for peace and unprecedented human progress has never before been so great or so achievable: let all peoples everywhere move together in realising our full potential.

This article was written by David Few a member of the SPEAK Network in Manchester.