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Arms sales really matter across the world

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:


Most of us have not directly experienced in our lifetimes the impact of full-scale war; but our official policies are still helping to support large-scale slaughter and long-term misery elsewhere in the world. Think of Yemen, where up to 14 million people are on the edge of famine as a result of a war that continues to claim countless lives; a war in which the UK government is complicit through its sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. These arms sales have increased by two thirds since 2016, and now account for nearly half of Britain’s major arms exports. A report published today by the charity Christian Aid on the UK government’s double standards highlights the painful tension between our words and actions about building peace and the volume of arms-related British exports we continue to take for granted. About half of our development spending goes to states and regions affected by chronic violent conflict, and about half of our arms exports go to states where military force is used against its citizens or vulnerable neighbours. It’s as if we are creating, or at least helping to maintain, the very conflicts whose terrible effects we then spend money on mitigating. This is both economic and moral nonsense. Sustainable development needs political security and the rule of law. It means people having a safe place to call home, a secure food supply and guaranteed access to medical and educational services.

The best use of our aid budget will always be in projects that create this kind of stable environment which means that peace-building is an intrinsic aspect of development. If we want to avoid wasting our foreign aid funds, we must invest in secure institutions, just process, and above all the avoidance of armed conflict. We cannot do this if we are at the same time unapologetically resourcing war Like everyone else the world over, I watched in horror last week as Notre Dame burned and its spire fell. I saw the stunned reactions of onlookers on the news, on social media and in front of television sets and phone screens on the streets of Nice, where I live. A part of France’s national identity and an international symbol of Paris was collapsing before our eyes. This accidental burning of one of the most important French cultural and religious monuments struck a painful chord in just about everyone I know. Look, Yemen, the US and South America. The unthinkable sight of Notre Dame burning evoked photographs of burning buildings during wartime, and nostalgia for all the valuable historical objects within them that had been turned to ash. One could not look at this sight without feeling grief. And yet my mind couldn’t stop questioning why the horrified reaction to the destruction of Notre Dame, a Unesco world heritage site, isn’t the response we always see to the destruction of any historical monument, no matter its location and no matter your nationality, race or religion.

Even as we grieve for Notre Dame, hundreds of millions of dollars in arms are being sold by the US, the UK, France, Italy, Australia and other countries to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as they begin their fifth year of aerial and terrestrial assault on Yemen. While Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP, it is immensely rich in cultural heritage. And today, this ancient and proud country of 25 million is being torn apart, along with its invaluable heritage. As a result of this brutal military campaign, more than 85,000 children have died of malnutrition, there have been 18,000 civilian casualties, and several million people are internally displaced. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, hundreds of Yemeni religious and historical monuments, three of which are Unesco world heritage sites, as well as renowned archaeological sites and museums, have been bombarded or suffered collateral damage from aerial attacks by the coalition, using the planes, guidance systems, and bombs sold to them by western nations. This past holds so many keys to our future, and we archaeologists hold these truths in our hands. We are the discoverers and protectors of a universal history, and we uncover and transmit clues on our origins, our past innovations and conflicts, and the rise and fall of ancient empires and fabulous monuments. In these modern times, archaeologists have an ethical and legal duty to respect and protect this past. We also have a responsibility to build public awareness so that citizens of the world engage in protecting heritage on all levels, tangible and intangible.

While many may be unfamiliar with Yemen, they will likely be familiar with its plethora of Notre Dames which, as well as being symbols of Yemen’s national identity, are an important part of our communal human history. To Yemen we owe the Queen of Sheba and the palaces and temples of the Sabaean kingdoms, the incense trade, the Marib dam, some of the earliest Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities and the monuments they raised, and archives dating as far back as the 9th century BC. And to Yemen we also owe the oldest and most splendid mud and stone vernacular architecture in the world, and a unique protected ecosystem unknown elsewhere in the world, on the Uneso world heritage island of Socotra. The fragile natural heritage of the island of Socotra is being undermined by Emirati development, as they annex it and turn it into a deluxe tourist destination, all the while continuing to bomb civilians and Yemeni heritage. Trump’s veto over Yemen is a scandalous abuse of presidential power Simon Tisdall. Donald Trump has been very clear as to why he recently vetoed a bill passed by both houses of the US Congress to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congress has seen overwhelm ing evidence that these arms are being used against a devastated civilian population under siege and suffering from famine and cholera. But the president of the United States expressed what all world leaders are hiding from their citizens: arms sales are more important than human lives and world heritage.

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition are being criticised and investigated by parliamentarians, lawyers and human rights groups across the globe because the situation in Yemen is beyond dire, and continued violence, embargoes and forced starvation are simply unjustifiable. Let’s stand up and collectively rebuild Notre Dame; but let’s also stand up and stop our governments’ destruction of Yemen, its people, and its Notre Dames, where the source of the burning is clearly no accident. It is being carried out with the assent of our governments, funded by our taxes, and in our names. For an immediate review of UK sales of arms to states that are actively infringing international law and human rights by pursuing murderous campaigns against their own citizens or their close neighbours. We are challenging the UK government to take a new lead in promoting peace and the rule of law in such contexts to follow through the logic of its aid spending by recognising armed conflict as the source of so many development challenges. This means not only stopping arms sales to certain nations but positively investing in programmes that build intercommunal and international cooperation, effective post-trauma support, training in mediation and conflict management and robust civil society institutions. British citizens would support an end to arms sales to countries engaged in indiscriminate slaughter. Three out of five are against selling arms to Saudi Arabia so long as it continues its activities in Yemen.

There is a similar majority in support of development programmes being guided by the immediate needs of people on the ground, not just by security priorities as Britain chooses to define them. Otherwise peace on Earth will indeed be little more than a cosy cliche. For Christians, human dignity. It is an exhilarating promise but not just a matter of comfort and joy, because it demands honesty about the depth of suffering caused by war, and courage and patience in confronting it. Britain is currently struggling with political near-paralysis as it tries to find a way of handling a problematic majority vote. But there is, in relation to our global context, what seems to be a clear national consensus about how we can become transformative leaders in this conflict-ridden world a clear majority supporting better and more coherent approaches to sustaining peace. Will the government and the political class listen? Nearly 70 million people worldwide are displaced because of violent conflict, and the number is steadily rising. We need to go to the root of the problem and act promptly and effectively.

Writer and Columnist