Britain's breathtaking double standard

Consider the list of countries to whom the UK has recently supplied arms.

sri lanka army  (photo credit: AP)
sri lanka army
(photo credit: AP)
The decision made this week by the British Foreign Office to cancel export licenses for Israeli warship parts is not the first time Her Majesty's Government has embargoed arms to Israel. In 1969, Harold Wilson's Labour government reneged on its promise to supply Israel with the advanced Chieftain tank, a project which Israel had helped develop. So the fact that the Foreign Office, notorious for its unbalanced approach to affairs in the Middle East, has once again decided to embargo Israel should not come as much of a surprise. But the UK's concern for how its military equipment will be put to use by the IDF rings rather hollow when considering the list of other countries to whom the UK has recently supplied arms; countries which have not fallen foul of Westminster's new "ethical" standards for weapons exports. In 2008, while the civil war in Sri Lanka was raging, Britain sold $22 million worth of armored vehicles, machine gun parts and semi-automatic pistols to the government in Colombo. During the course of the Sri Lankan army's assault on the last Tamil Tiger strongholds from January to May this year, approximately 20,000 civilians were killed. The Foreign Office said of the cancelled Israeli contracts "We do not grant export licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression." The Sri Lankan army appears to have killed more than 40 times the number of civilians in its campaign against the Tamil Tigers than were killed in the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier this year, but we have yet to hear of any restrictions on British arms exports to Sri Lanka. And the story doesn't end there. In recent years, the UK has sold arms to Algeria during the civil war there between 1991 and 1999. Components for air-to-air missiles were sold to Pakistan during the period of Musharraf's undemocratic rule. Recent British arms exports to China include components for military navigation equipment and naval radar, military aero-engines and technology for the production of combat aircraft. And the Foreign Office approved the sale of shotguns and sniper rifles to Saudi Arabia, as well as signing a contract with the Kingdom to supply it with 72 Typhoon fighter jets. The double standard which the British Foreign Office has applied in defining which countries are suitable customers for British arms is quite breathtaking. China threatens Taiwan, occupies Tibet and brutally oppresses its own people. Relations between Pakistan and India in the earlier part of this decade were extremely volatile and the countries even teetered on the edge of nuclear conflict in 2001-2002. And the atrocious record of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses is well documented. Yet, oddly, none of this has prompted London to embargo weapons to any of these governments, despite its declared parameters precluding the export of British arms to countries which might use them for external aggression or internal repression. BUT THE HYPOCRISY of the recent announcement is not perhaps the most concerning aspect of this affair. What is more alarming is the specific focus of the embargo, namely Israel's actions during Operation Cast Lead. The cancellation of the export licenses would seem to imply that Britain views Cast Lead as Israeli "external aggression". It is extremely wearisome to continually repeat the same facts and arguments, but after Israel absorbed 10,000 rocket and mortar attacks over eight years into its sovereign territory, defining the IDF's operation in Gaza as aggression is quite an Orwellian turn of phrase. If Cornish separatists were to shell Plymouth or Welsh separatists would shell Liverpool, how long would it take the British government to send in the Royal Marines? Not very long, one imagines. What this embargo says is that the UK denies Israel the right to self-defence. This was already made clear during Cast Lead when British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, just two days after the operation began, issued a call for an immediate cease-fire. Miliband ostensibly did not want Israel to destroy Hamas' rocket arsenal, did not want Israel to destroy Hamas' smuggling tunnels and did not want the extremist, rejectionist, Islamist terrorist group that is Hamas to be defeated. Civilian casualties are always sustained in war as the UK knows from its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this does not mean that wars are therefore automatically illegitimate, much less defensive wars undertaken after the utmost provocation. Britain's decision to cancel the export licenses is perfectly in keeping with its generally supine foreign policy, which, with regard to the Middle East, seems to be dictated largely by domestic political concerns. From Miliband's meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Damascus last November to the recent meeting between the British Ambassador to Lebanon and a senior Hizbullah official, the UK's stance seems to be avowedly on the side of belligerent and reactionary forces in the region. Golda Meir said that the British decision to cancel the Chieftain contract was like "a bomb exploding above Israel's head". The most recent cancellation is far less serious, but it throws into sharp relief the fickle and self-serving nature of Israel's so-called friends. The writer is a researcher and writer based in Jerusalem. He has worked at a number of Israeli think tanks and served in the IDF Spokesperson's Unit.