A wave of revolution across the Middle East and north Africa this year has left tyrants and dictators clinging to the power they once took for granted. Citizens of countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria have taken to the streets and in some cases fought and died in an attempt to overthrow their rulers. But as Britain has offered its support to the newfound freedom fighters, some have made accusations of hypocrisy. After all, like many other western nations, the UK has been doing business with authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for decades.
Little is known about the true extent of the relationship the UK has maintained with dictators and autocrats across the region. However, as the old regimes crumble, details have begun to slowly emerge. Last week the organisation Human Rights Watch released documents it discovered in Libya, revealing that UK intelligence agency MI6 collaborated with Muammar Gaddafi's security services to transport terror suspects to Libya for interrogation, where they were allegedly subjected to torture. MI6 continues to deny involvement, though the secret documents paint an altogether different picture.
Amid the uprising in Egypt earlier this year, protesters made a similarly shocking find. After ransacking a government intelligence agency headquarters in Cairo, they unearthed hidden underground interrogation cells, evidence of torture, and a stockpile of documents that outlined a paranoid government programme of industrial-scale mass surveillance. Most controversially, among the many files was a letter from an English, Andover-based IT-security company, dated June 2010, offering to sell Egyptian authorities spy technology that would enable them to intercept dissidents’ emails, record audio and video chats, and take copies of computer hard drives.
The company, Gamma International, denies that it sold the technology, worth over £250,000, to the Egyptian authorities. “Gamma complies in all its dealings with all applicable UK laws and regulations,” it said in a statement. “Gamma did not supply to Egypt but in any event it would not be appropriate for Gamma to make public details of its transactions with any customer.”
Many similar products, manufactured in western countries, are believed to be widely available to Arab governments facing uprising. An extensive recent investigation conducted by the Bloomberg news agency, for instance, found that Trovicor, a German company with links to Siemens and Nokia, had supplied “monitoring centres” to at least twelve Middle Eastern and north African nations.
Such technology is used by governments around the world, including in the UK. However its use in most western countries is strictly regulated and can only be used when authorities have grounds to believe it could help prevent or detect a crime. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East do not have the same regulatory framework, though this does not restrict western firms such as Gamma International and Trovicor from selling them their products.
Since the discovery of documents showing British and other European companies had either offered or sold intrusive spy technology to regimes across the Middle East and north Africa, a group of concerned European politicians has taken action. Six MEP’s including Baroness Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat MEP for London, made a joint request to the EU’s head of foreign policy calling for a decision on whether European companies contributed to human rights violations in countries including Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria.
“I don’t know whether the EU has paid sufficient attention to this,” Ludford said. “It raises very important issues about whether export of surveillance equipment from the EU is being used in repression and human rights abuses. The law is a mess: it’s not being properly or rigorously applied and that needs to happen alongside responsible companies that check what the ultimate use [of the technology] is going to be.”
According to Dr Andrea Teti, a specialist in international security at Aberdeen University, it is not possible to stop surveillance systems from being used for repressive purposes unless firm new legislation is implemented, controlling the countries to which it is exported.
“Just because the physical harm comes once removed from this particular technology, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about it,” he said. “If there are safety implications for people in terms of their human rights or physical safety, then we should have some kind of controls. The problem that we have in the west is that in most cases those regulations are quite poor when it comes to export licensing. The onus is definitely on us to deal with that side of things – and we haven’t done so.”
Through the course of the Arab Spring the murky world of mass surveillance has undoubtedly been exposed by the fracture of once intensely secretive regimes. But important questions have also been raised about the UK’s role in arming state forces responsible for brutally repressing protests across the region.
In February the Foreign Office said it was conducting an “immediate and rapid review” of all UK arms export licences to affected countries. Between February and June, however, arms sales to Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia totalled over £30m – 30 per cent more than for the same period in 2010. Weapons exported included sniper rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, according to an investigation by The Times.
The government has since blocked the export of arms to Libya and Syria as part of an EU embargo, and also revoked a number of military export licences to Bahrain. But Oliver Sprague, director of human rights group Amnesty International’s UK arms control programme, said it was a case of “closing the stable door after the horse had bolted,” and called for tighter regulations.
“Countries are entitled to purchase weaponry for legitimate defence and policing purposes, but was it ever remotely sensible for the UK to sell weapons and crowd-control equipment to countries like Gaddafi’s Libya?” he said. “The key question is: are our existing risk-assessment procedures tight enough when it comes to sending arms overseas? The lesson of countries like Bahrain and Libya is that they’re not and we could still end up sending weapons to human rights abusers in the future.”
The Foreign Office said that there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom, though admitted “further work is needed on how we operate certain aspects of the controls.”
A spokesperson said: “We do not export equipment where there is a clear risk it could be used for internal repression ... Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications. HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] reacted quickly to the events in the Middle East: we reviewed licences and moved swiftly to revoke where they were no longer in the line with the criteria.”
This article first appeared in issue no.893 of the Big Issue in the North.
There has been renewed scrutiny of the UK’s arms-export rules since the breakout of the Arab Spring. Embargoes are currently in force preventing exports to Libya and Syria, but the UK has continued to consider licenses on a case-by-case basis to other countries in the region, including Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, prompting criticism from human rights groups.
When considering an application to export arms, the government is bound by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Additionally, as part of its own criteria, it says it will:
- Not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression
- Exercise special caution and vigilance in issuing licences, taking account of the nature of the equipment, to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the UN, the Council of Europe or by the EU.
Arab Spring: key dates
* Tunisia, December 19 2010
Struggling 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire in protest after Tunisian authorities confiscate his electronic scales and toss aside his cart. The incident sparks angry protests and violent police crackdowns across the country as frustrated youths, many unemployed, take to the streets. 28 days later president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is ousted by protesters and flees to Saudi Arabi.
* Egypt, January 25 2011
Mass protests take place in Cairo in protest over police brutality, high food prices and widespread corruption. Inspired by the success of the Tunisian revolution, Egyptian protesters turn out en masse in the Cairo’s Tahir Square, which becomes a symbol of the Arab Spring. Thousands are injured during violent clashes with authorities. President Hosni Mubarak resigns on 11 February, but the revolution continues.
* Bahrain and Yemen, February 14 2011
Violent clashes take place across the Middle East as the Egyptian uprising spreads. Twitter and Facebook are used to coordinate protests, which by March have resulted in hundreds of protesters killed.
* Libya, February 15 2011
A human rights activist is detained in Benghazi, prompting a small demonstration. The police violently disperse the protesters, who demand an end to the 42-year regime of Muammar Gaddafi. A “day of revolt” is planned for February 17, during which authorities shoot dead a number of unarmed civilians. A long and bloody civil war ensues between rebel groups and Gaddafi forces, with an estimated 50,000 killed as of late August. By September Gaddafi is in hiding and the rebels are in control of the country.