If Saddam is such a monster, why did we arm him and trade with him?

03 December 2002

According to the Foreign Office dossier, Saddam Hussein: crimes and human rights abuses , "Iraq is a terrifying place to live". It certainly is, and even the most vociferous anti-war campaigner would have to agree that Saddam heads a brutal, cruel, murderous regime. There is something vaguely pornographic about the Government's little compendium of sadism, with its graphic, stomach-turning descriptions of eye gouging, acid baths and electric drills. But there is no reason to doubt that these things are commonplace in Baathist Iraq, and that the Iraqi people, the Middle East and the world generally would be happier and safer without Saddam.

Why then, one is forced to ask, did the British and American governments show such enthusiasm for supporting and arming this monster during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s? It is not an adequate response to plead the realpolitik that the Iranian ayatollahs were a more potent threat to Western interests, or that, if we didn't arm him, others would (the defence mounted by the late Alan Clark during the Arms-to-Iraq scandal). For Saddam used the very weapons that the West supplied to him to annexe Kuwait, an outcome infinitely worse than anything the CIA imagined the Iranians were about to visit upon the region.

Why, also, were Western governments at the time so utterly indifferent to the fate of the Kurds gassed at Halabja in 1988? One of the images that outrage left behind is reproduced in the Government's dossier. It has retained its chilling quality, but it didn't move the British or American governments of the day to action. The neglect of Iraq, and indeed of Afghanistan, of East Timor and countless other obscure territories, until they became a nuisance, are not just scars on our national conscience, but, on a long-term view, entirely inimical to our national interests. This dossier should remind us of that salient fact.

Tony Blair and Jack Straw are, of course, quite entitled to point out that these instances of British government hypocrisy took place under the previous lot, and were nothing to do with them. Indeed Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary at the time of the Scott report, did a good deal to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of Conservative ministers under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Mr Cook went on to become Foreign Secretary and to experience problems of his own with the "ethical dimension" of foreign policy, but the point now is to remind this government about the central importance that human rights should play in foreign policy.

So we should be impatient when ministers, so energetically pursuing the (familiar) case against Saddam, make excuses for the human rights abuses perpetrated by our "friends". From the Israeli army's abuse of Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories to General Dostum's ill-treatment of prisoners of war in Afghanistan to the endemic cruelty of Algeria's near civil war, we hear little protest from the United States and governments in the European Union. Still less do Western governments dare to criticise abuses by powerful trading partners or close strategic allies such as China, Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. Indeed the treatment of prisoners at Camp X-Ray and our own policy towards refugees are not exactly a model of liberal practice.

Saddam Hussein may be as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the Government says he is; but as with so many regimes around the world today, we seemed very content with him for a disturbingly long time.


The Sketch: Home Secretary shows us his qualities: he's flat, monotonous and thick

By Simon Carr

03 December 2002

What a plank he is, really, I hope the French don't think we're all like him. The Home Secretary in the House yesterday had all the suave charm of high-density flooring material: flat, monotonous and thick. Those qualities are attractive in our close friends, but in a Home Secretary they are a danger to the public.

His statement on the closure of Sangatte, the French holding pen for asylum-seekers, should have been a triumph of its kind; it went off very badly for him in more ways than one. Not the least of which was his issuing a public plea to his department to do better. Much better actually. So much better that they'll never manage it. There is a rule in Parliament: whenever ministers say they want a "step change", or its slightly grander relation "a complete change in the culture", you know they're on a hiding to nothing.

Politicians are comically unable to get the wording changed on the landing cards that airlines hand out, let alone change a culture.

Oliver Letwin stood up to reply. Mr Letwin, you should know, has discovered a new way to do Parliament. He asks unexpected questions in a courteous way. Mr Blunkett finds it difficult to deal with these manners. He feels himself patronised but can't quite put his finger on the reason.

Mr Letwin began by observing that the camp, surely, was a symptom not a cause. Wasn't it set up because asylum-seekers were in northern France, rather than the other way round?

Then he asked on what legal basis Mr Blunkett's 1,000 Iraqis had been issued with work permits. If they had been eligible for them, why hadn't they been awarded them before the closure of the camp?

Then: "I cannot rid myself of the suspicion that the Home Secretary has been highlighting Sangatte for some time to distract attention from the numbers entering and remaining in this country, and the shambles that these numbers reveal," Mr Letwin observed sadly.

The shambles does, truly, offer a new definition of what shambolic might mean. Mr Letwin pointed out that 29,000 migrants arrived last quarter and just 3,500 unsuccessful seekers were sent away. He pointed out that 70 per cent of all asylum applications failed and if these numbers continued, in a decade there would be 700,000 illegal migrants living in Britain.

The Home Secretary repeated his call for Mr Letwin to join in condemning those who would halt all immigration. He talked of voices he heard raised louder and louder. Some of them close to the Conservative Party. Heard here, heard there! On the Today programme! In The Times! "And bordering, I have to say, from Anthony Browne [the journalist] on fascism!"

It was the most thoroughly disreputable thing that David Blunkett has said in the House. Venomous, ignorant and under privilege. Anthony Browne's immigration figures are very shocking – so much so that they demand to be heard and debated.

David Blunkett's legislative history has proposed or achieved the abolition of jury trials. The right of officials to view private internet histories. Asylum courts that hear appeals brought against their own judgments.

If you want to talk about bordering on fascism, that's the Sudetenland in 1938.

Analysis: The rights and wrongs of the official British view of the world

As Tony Blair highlights human rights abuses in Iraq, how does his government tackle abuses by other controversial regimes?

03 December 2002

The Foreign Office report focuses on Afghanistan and how the defeat of the Taliban brought about a "remarkable advance for the cause of human rights". Core rights, including freedom of expression and women's rights, are now better respected than for a generation, the report states.

While it proudly affirms that the military operations performed by UK troops "have been conducted strictly in accordance with the Geneva conventions", it is silent on the behaviour of American forces, including over the misdirected bombing of Afghan villagers.

The report is also silent about the hundreds of Taliban prisoners who suffocated to death in containers after they had surrendered to Afghan warlords. The report skirts around these gross violations of the Geneva conventions and says that the UK reminded its Afghan allies of the need "to treat prisoners humanely".

And it does not criticise the US for its failure to prosecute or release the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. "It is for the US, as the detaining power" to decide, the report says.

UK Trade with Afghanistan

2001 Exports #3.8m

2001 Imports #0.6m


The country's popular reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, was re-elected in June last year. The Foreign Office says the vote demonstrated the continuing strong support by a majority of Iranians for his reform programme, which aims "to establish an Islamic civil society based on the rule of law". The report says the pace of progress has reduced since he was first elected in 1997, mostly as a result of the struggle between secular reformists and conservative clerics.

The EU's policy towards Iran involves a "critical engagement" aimed at encouraging reform. The Foreign Office claims it is constantly raising issues of human rights abuses at the highest level of Iranian government.

In the past year, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has bypassed the President to shut down more than 70 newspapers, while the judiciary recently sentenced to death an intellectual who dared to suggest an alternative to theocracy for governing Iran.

UK Trade with Iran

2001 Exports #430.8m

2001 Imports #29.6m

Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Occupied Territories

What the Foreign Office describes as the "deteriorating situation in Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas and the Occupied Territories" has led to widespread human rights violations "by both sides", the report says.

It points to significant loss of life and injury on both sides, with more than 2,400 deaths since the start of the intifada in September 2000. While condemning the "appalling suicide bombings" against Israel, the Foreign Office says that Israeli steps to protect itself from terrorist attack should be "neither disproportionate nor excessive".

It notes that Israel has resorted to using increasingly draconian measures to deal with the terrorist threat, including closures and curfews in the West Bank and Gaza and restrictions on Palestinian access to east Jerusalem. Excessive force by Israeli military operations has resulted in the killing and wounding of many Palestinian civilians, including women and children.

UK Trade with Israel

2001 Exports #1,365.8m

2001 Imports #975.3m

Trade with West Bank/Gaza

2001 exports #0.2m

2001 imports #0.1m

North Korea

Britain established diplomatic relations with Stalinist North Korea in late 2000 and opened an embassy in Pyongyang last year. The human rights record is grim and the Foreign Office report says that there are "widespread and serious violations of human rights in the DPRK". The need to acquire reliable information on human rights has become "a driving factor" behind Britain's policy of dealing with Pyongyang, the report says.

Many problems are direct consequences of the political system, a dictatorship under theKorean Workers' Party. Under its ideology, there is a national interest in identifying and isolating all opposition, with control of information a cornerstone of the highly centralised system under Kim Jong Il's personality cult.

The UK and the EU regard discussion of human rights as integral to their relationships with North Korea, and have told the authorities the development of relations will depend on addressing human rights concerns. In May last year, Kim Jong Il made a commitment to the EU to engage in human rights dialogue, but it has been six years since a UN rapporteur was allowed into the country.

UK Trade with North Korea

2001 Exports #28.2m

2001 Imports #1.4m


Britain views the human rights situation in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya "with serious concern", the Foreign Office report says. But, crucially, it has also always recognised Russia's right to defend its sovereignty and to counter the activities of terrorist groups operating in Chechnya. Britain also highlights what it says are the clear links between some extremists in Chechnya and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

"We have emphasised that Russian military operations in Chechnya should be conducted in strict adherence to the rule of law and should respect human rights," the document says. But summary executions, disappearances, torture and looting continue.

Human rights organisations say that the damaging evidence of the dirty war Russia's forces are waging in Chechnya has been logged by international organisations from the UN to the Council of Europe and well as by numerous human rights organisations. Moscow pays little heed to these reports and has operated under the cover of the "war on terror" to wreak bloody vengeance on the Chechens.

UK Trade with Russia

2001 Exports #907m

2001 Imports #2,043m

Saudi Arabia

This is one of the trickiest countries for the Foreign Office, whose report notes that Britain "continues to have concerns" about human rights in the kingdom. They include "the implementation of basic international human rights norms" including parts of the judicial system; corporal and capital punishment; torture; discrimination against women and non-Muslims and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and worship.

Britain has what the Government calls "an active dialogue" with the Saudi Arabian authorities on human rights issues. The cases of British nationals detained in Saudi Arabia in June 2001 have been raised by the Prime Minister. But human rights organisations despair at the West's approach to the kingdom, which they routinely point out has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. Scores of people are executed every year, many for non-violent crimes.

William Sampson, a Canadian, and Alexander Mitchell, a British national, were sentenced to death in a secret trial after being shown on television "confessing" to bombings in the kingdom in November 2000. One Belgian national and four other Britons were also arrested in connection with the bombings and appeared on television "confessing" to their involvement. They have each been sentenced to prison terms of eight to 18 years. All the Britons say they were tortured into making their "confessions".

UK Trade with Saudi Arabia

2001 Exports #1,516.3m

2001 Imports #991.3m


Turkey, a Nato ally and would-be EU member state, is one of the few success stories, with human rights organisations and the Government in broad agreement that the country has taken strides to improve its record. The Foreign Office maintains that "eliminating torture is a priority" for Turkey to join the EU. And it acknowledges the "measures which the Turkish government is putting in place, ranging from enhanced human rights training programmes to the timely investigation of incidents of torture and prosecution of those responsible".

In August, Turkey abolished the death penalty, a move that Amnesty had been campaigning against for years. But as Kurdish groups say, repression and torture is still part of everyday life. Human rights organisations, however, praise the moves to jail police officers involved in the case of the torture of the "Manisa children", 16 people aged 14 to 26, who were detained on suspicion of membership of an illegal, leftist group.

UK Trade with Turkey

2001 Exports #1,202.01m

2001 Imports #1,775.82m


The central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has been ruled by Islam Karimov, a dictator, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Foreign Office refers to the country's "poor record of ensuring respect for human rights" and points out that several detainees have died under torture while in police custody in the past year.

The Government continues to work with the EU to "maintain an ongoing dialogue with the Uzbek government". The Foreign Office also notes: "There has been no improvement in Uzbekistan's worrying record on respecting people's rights to freedom of expression and information."

But the British and EU policy of active engagement with one of the most repressive regimes on earth has alarmed American and European human rights organisations. They are running a campaign to stop the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development holding its annual meeting next year in the capital, Tashkent. They say that President Karimov once stated publicly that he was prepared to tear off the heads of 200 people to protect Uzbekistan's freedom and stability.

UK Trade with Uzbekistan

2001 Exports #20.40m

2001 Imports #26.74m

Research by Gabriele Parussini