12 Jan 2015

Human rights: weapons exports, floggings and extremism

Whenever a communications company, or a defence contractor seeks to sell systems to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and other security sensitive countries,  one or other of the great City law firms is asked to carry out ‘a Human Rights Impact Assessment’ for the British government.

Occasionally the relatively soft document that emerges may allow the communications company to provide the telephony, but, for example not the next stage of intercept equipment. Or a weapons manufacturer may be forced to remove some fancy night vision capacity.

But in general the contracts tend to go through.

My source is a City solicitor who has undertaken many of the ‘Human Rights Impact Assessments’. It’s a casual, old boyish, who-you-know kind of a world, and the primary object is export as much British made stuff as possible. What use it may all be put to is secondary, or so he tells me.

So it is that on the very day upon which the Paris atrocity against Charlie Hebdo was carried out – supposedly in the name of remedying ‘blasphemy’ – one of the most sensitive countries to which we supply ‘sensitive’ equipment was engineering its own remedy for blasphemy.

On Friday, as Jewish shoppers were being held or murdered in a Paris supermarket, Raif  Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was being lashed fifty times in a public flogging in Saudi Arabia.


According to Amnesty International, Badawi has been sentenced to be flogged 50 times for the next 20 weeks to fulfil the sentence of 1,000 lashes. He will be medically treated between lashes to ensure that he survives for the next set.

He will serve ten years in jail and pay a fine of £175,000. There is of course no evidence that any of the equipment used for this punishment is exported from the UK – but we export much of what is used to keep the government there in power. Even the US government has formally complained. I can’t find a record of the UK doing so.

Badawi’s crime was to set up a web site, ‘Free Saudi Liberals’, which reportedly criticised religion and it’s growing influence on the Saudi government. There is no written penal code in Saudi, so the judgement itself is based on the judges’ interpretation of the Quran.

Whether Britain itself enjoys a written code that actually defines what exactly would represent ‘a human right’s impact’ is open to question. But given that the Saudi Kingdom carried out 89 public beheadings in 2011, 59 in 2012, 69 in 2013, and a staggering 26 last August alone, there might be an issue of human rights in play.

Indeed with untold numbers of public floggings, of which Mr Badawi’s is but one, there may be a number of human rights issues in play.

But above and beyond all this in considering a Human Rights Impact, is the export of Wahhabism – the most radical interpretation of Islam on Earth.

Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda acolytes claimed that they preached Wahhabism, as does Boko Haram in Nigeria. Might the Wahhabism  ‘export’, if not officially sanctioned by the Saudi government at the very least taking place on their watch, be seen as having a ‘human rights impact’?

What City law form can conceivably have concluded that the ‘human rights impact’ of exporting anything at all that had a lethal application – from communications to weaponry – as at the least, highly contentious.

In the light of the Paris horror, and other instances of Wahhabi extremism, perhaps it is time the matter of ‘human right’s impact’ testing was brought into the 21st century?

Follow @jonsnowC4 on Twitter.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4