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Essay: Responsibility of supplying weaponary

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
  • Reading time: 5 minutes
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  • Published: 20 July 2022*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 1,443 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 6 (approx)

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When a state sells arms to another state, it’s not clandestine that these will be used to attack others, consequentially, the seller must hold some responsibility in giving the means to murder. Currently, the focus of the Yemen conflict highlights the turmoil between moral obligation toward human rights and the furthering of a state’s power, do the theories of realists such as Machiavelli perpetuate a society where anarchy leads to the suffering of any other state?

For my engagement, I think it will be important not only to investigate who responsibility falls on but also what kind of responsibility they have, specifically focusing on the arms trade between UK and Saudi Arabia. Different perspectives also will claim different ideas on responsibility of weaponry and I’d be interested to interview political parties with opposing ideas and an NGO concerning how far states are able to reject responsibility if they’re not acting directly. Therefore, I will interview Sarah Newton: a Conservative MP, to find a perspective from inside government. Moreover, I will go to a local husting to further analyse how politicians see responsibility and morality in their discussions. A chairman of the campaign for nuclear disarmament in the south west will also be vital in providing a strong point of view against the use of arms which mainstream politics may avoid. Key course concepts linking to this are power – as states seek to have economic control – and conflict – caused by the presence of weapons in states and the war they allow. The global significance of this issue is obvious: if the young people of today are unable to learn from the injustice in the arms trade currently they will encounter the same problems. To be unable to accept responsibility can be used as a way to avoid solving problems. As a young person myself I find this specifically important because I find that a lot of the political actions which I’ve observed of the UK’s government are hypocritical and therefore think that if our generation are to follow, we should not make decisions favouring power above humanity.

I will be focusing on the UK selling arms to Saudi Arabia. This case study will help me understand who is perceived as responsible and furthermore, factors differing cultures that can affect this. The UK cannot deny Saudi Arabia’s use of the weapons on Yemen however many condemn this, most significantly, Theresa May herself highlighted her “deep concerns” over the humanitarian crisis as if she is not somewhat responsible for them having the weapons at all. Responsibility has varied definitions however in this engagement I’ll be focusing on two: de juro responsibility relating to laws and regulations, or toward morals of the individual. The 2008 EU common position on arms exports commits member states to “high common standards” in their export controls outlining eight criteria requiring these states to follow rules concerning licenses to sell arms. Heavy controversy has formed around the human rights aspects of these, especially concerning that between the UK and Saudi Arabia due mainly to Article 2 (the right to life) and Article 5 (the right to liberty and security) . If the UK is a part of the EU it is tied to the EU common position on arms exports and therefore should analyse and deny licenses to trade arms when there’s “clear risk” of human rights violations such as in Yemen. Critically, there is no “formal mechanism” in the anarchic system between states creating a wasteland for enforcing legalities. Although the EU can make rules there’s no superior power forcing them to follow rules so it’s difficult to assign responsibility without looking at moral responsibility making it easy for the UK to avoid consequences. Within realism this selfishness is critical in the way a state is run and controlled. Without supranational authority there’s no way to force the UK to follow the EU common position and, from a Machiavellian perspective, it’s unlikely if these regulations have no benefit to their own power . With the UK and Saudi Arabia, they can’t be legally responsible once Saudi Arabia owns the weapons; however, it can be argued that they can be morally responsible because although the UK isn’t directly using the weapons, they’re allowing Saudi Arabia to attack the rebels in Yemen .

To analyse the differentiation between responsibility, I first spoke to local Conservative MP Sarah Newton about where responsibility should rely: morality, or laws. She believes “it is important to consider both” in “high risk decisions” which, although understandable, didn’t place my investigation on either side. It does however highlight for me how politicians can be quick to dismiss responsibility by not specifying a “side” which is an indicator of what we can expect for future government’s attitudes. I saw this a lot while observing a local husting, not just with Conservative candidates but across all parties. MPs use dismissive language to avoid assigning responsibility to their own party mirroring how states will be dismissive over their own actions to focus and criticise the actions of others. Newton answered my question on Russia as a powerful state selling arms to Syria to be used in Aleppo which “misuse[s] its responsibilities” as part of the UN security council and referenced their “flouting of international laws” indicating the belief that Russia is not legally responsible but morally. Contrasting this with views on what the UK can do to help Yemen, she brings up the commitment to the “UN-led peace process to reach a lasting political solution” which I would argue contradicts the fact that the UK is selling the mass of the weapons being used. In fact, while it may be true the UK has so far provided £400 million in support since 2015, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimate that the UK has sold Yemen’s attackers around £330 million in British-made arms since 2013 . Additionally, while Newton mentioned Britain’s “lead” efforts to encourage humanitarian assistance for Yemen she does not mention the recent accusation of UK war crimes made by rebel Yemeni PM, Abdulaziz bin Habtour. A Sky News report indicates his beliefs on responsibility, he recognises that the UK are not ignorant of where the bombs will be used by Saudi and that “they are participating in the bombing of Yemeni people.” Furthermore, they have found recently deployed British-made cluster bomb parts in Yemen even after the Convention of Cluster Munitions in 2010 to prohibit these sales . Overall, as a representative of our government, her most beneficial way to support Yemen’s crisis ironically doesn’t seem to include not providing the bombs. This dismissive attitude of responsibility perpetuates the idea that it is of lawful basis. The UK government is able to assign monstrous qualities to their opposition while doing the same thing to another state. The obvious political benefit of this (in which the biased, patriotic trust of a state is furthered) is overshadowed by a sense that, without exposure, the morality of the UK arms trade will forever be tainted .

Opposing this, Saudi Arabia holds a massive debt of responsibility as they are the primary attackers and, although the UK provides many of the weapons, they would not be used without Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen. After speaking with Peter Le Mare of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament it became apparent that he too was conflicted over where the responsibility fell. In relation to Theresa May’s “deep concerns” over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen he believes that, while there’s obviously importance in recognising the UK’s role in the conflict, it’s also important to focus on the responsibility in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, that they should be the ones responsible for helping assist those which have been injured and displaced as 50% of the Yemen population have found themselves in severe famine. I was somewhat surprised to hear he also finds responsibility to be most importantly “withheld within the laws of a state” seeing as he is one of the more liberal parties I engaged with. And I therefore expected him to have focus on the UK provision of the arms. He did of course argue that while Saudi Arabia is corrupt in using the arms, preventing the selling of the arms is the easiest way to avoid responsibility however raises the question: is responsibility completely shifted from the UK if Saudi Arabia is left to buy from somewhere else? This paradoxical view would suggest that the majority of the responsibility has to fall on the one carrying out the attacks because by pulling-out of weapons sales a state cannot prevent attacks.


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