It’s time for Britain to drop hypocrisy over rule of law

Last month, the British Court of Appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal, as they were likely being used against civilians in the Saudi invasion of Yemen, violating international humanitarian law that binds the UK. The government is appealing the decision, keen to continue supporting the Saudi led war in Yemen, despite the massive humanitarian and human rights crisis it has provoked.

An investigative piece in The Guardian of June 18th outlined the extensive and pervasive role of the UK in the war in Yemen, declaring that Saudi Arabia had effectively “contracted out vital parts of its war against Yemen’s Houthi movement to the US and the UK. Britain does not merely supply weapons for this war: it provides the personnel and expertise required to keep the war going.”

Britain likes to portray itself out as a supporter of the rule of law, democracy and human rights, but its relationship with Saudi Arabia exposes its hypocrisy. For that relationship has nothing to do with rule of law, human rights or even anti-terrorism: It is all about economics.

Between 2014 and 2015, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia jumped 35 times from Pounds 83 million to Pounds 2.9 billion (which is more than Kenya’s total budget). The arms sales are but the foundation for the Saudi royal family’s investments in the UK, which in 2017 totaled Pounds 93 billion!

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The article argues that the Saudi’s rescued the UK financially when the US convinced the UK to sell its Tornado fighter jets after the Iranian revolution at a time when “Britain was in financial disarray.” The deal the Saudi’s got included a clause that obligated the UK to sell arms to Saudi Arabia if it went to war.

It is this context that makes it rather difficult to believe the assertions from the British High Commission in Nairobi that it cares about ordinary Kenyans, democracy, human rights, anti-corruption and the rule of law in Kenya. In fact, until 1997, the British High Commission was unabashed about its total support for the regime of the day, at the expense of human rights.  

It was publicly silent about the assassinations of political leaders; as torture in Nyayo House became policy for those who dissented; and as demands for multipartyism increased and were ruthlessly put down. It was silent as political and economic marginalisation of northern and western Kenya went on, and as corruption became a way of life for those in power, totally conforming to dictates of the regime.

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Incidentally, the return to public office of Bernard Chunga to lead a taskforce within the (UK supported) Directorate of Public Prosecutions is an affront to the survivors of Nyayo House torture chambers and to the new Constitution. As the prosecutor at the time, Mr Chunga was complicit in the torture, remanding suspects until they pleaded guilty. Those who refused to plead guilty, like the late Gacheche wa Miano, were eventually detained without trial.

To be fair, in 1997, things changed a bit when the Labour Party came to power in the UK. Conscious of the deep suspicion within, and distance from, the pro-democracy movement, the Foreign Office sent out a representative from London to connect with civil society and other actors, as it changed from being sycophantic of the regime to having more balance. It also reasserted itself internationally and begun supporting democratic and human rights issues more consistently globally.

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But things returned to their norm after the 2013 elections when the Uhuru Kenyatta regime effectively cut off ties with western diplomatic missions and engaged with China more aggressively and openly. This would have been okay had the engagement with China been to the benefit of Kenyans, rather than burdening us with unbearable debt and raising taxes to pay for the looting that it engendered. The Westgate attack was the turning point, and both the Kenyatta regime and western countries bent over backwards to refresh their relationship. And so much did some of the western missions bend over that now the Kenyatta regime can do no wrong in their eyes.

The UK and US missions remain some of the only people—outside of die-hard Jubilee sycophants—who maintain that the 2017 election was credible, and that Jubilee won despite all the evidence to the contrary. They are some of the few who believe that the Kenyatta war on corruption is serious even when key scandals—inflated SGR, Eurobond, Mafya House--are left untouched because they go way too high.

They remain quiet when the poor in Mathare are slaughtered by the police willy-nilly and are subject to extortions every week by the police.

It is worth remembering that one of the UK’s biggest investments in “aid” is in security, and they have been training and working on “reforming” the Kenya Police since 1992. Yet, all we have seen is better equipped police who are more brutal, making Kenya one of world leaders in extra-judicial executions during peacetime.

To be sure, British foreign policy is just about them, much like Russia’s or China’s. If only they would be as explicit and drop the hypocrisy.

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- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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BritainSaudi ArabiaHuman Rights