The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats faces serious questions over the human rights position of UK arms exports. Yesterday Willie Rennie, a leading figure within the ‘Better Together’ campaign, visited Thales Optronics in Glasgow lauding their work as “truly impressive”. However, Thales Optronics is owned by the Thales Group – the 11th largest arms manufacturer in the world – whose subsidiaries provide military hardware in Saudi Arabia. Thales is one of many companies with bases in the UK who export arms to countries with poor human rights records. These arms exports are regulated by the Westminster Government. David Cameron also visited Thales last month when he defended plans for another generation of UK nuclear missiles.
According to Amnesty International “Torture is rife in Saudi Arabia”, while the country continues to repress women, censor political expression and carry out numerous state executions.
According to Thales Annual Financial Report 2011, “In 2011, Thales’s subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia consolidated their position in the Defence market (especially in the field of air defence systems), as well as in the provision of protection systems for sensitive site infrastructures.” (page 137) Their total arms sales in 2011 were $9.48 billion.
This news comes on the day that protesters from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade targeted Vince Cable MP, whose Westminster department oversees the subsidy paid to UK arms exporters. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute measured the UK subsidy at £2.1 billion over a three year period. In 2011 the UK exported arms to countries with questionable human rights records, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many other ‘countries of concern’.
National Collective previously documented links between UK arms exports and human rights abuses in Israel, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Bharain, Egypt and Libya. These exports are regulated by the UK Government. In 2010, 10,850 arms export licenses were accepted and only 230 were refused.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader at Westminster, wrote last month in the Guardian that “We will not be silent on human rights”, including in Saudi Arabia. At present Rennie has made no comment on UK arms exports, although the Liberal Democrats say a comment will be released shortly.
Henry McLaughlin from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said “Before the last General Election the Lib Dems criticised arms selling to Saudi Arabia because of the regime’s terrible human rights record. Now, in government, they are actively promoting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Arms companies such as Thales benefit from huge levels of government support. This support should be transferred to industries which benefit humans, such as renewable energy.”
Green MSP Patrick Harvie commented,
It’s disappointing that Willie Rennie chooses to praise a firm associated with the arms trade. He should be asking it searching questions, not patting it on the back. Instead of posing for photo opportunities he should be trying to influence his Libdem colleagues in Government at Westminster to stop arms exports to countries with poor human rights records.”
The Thales Group, which is head quartered in France, is yet to respond to our request for a comment.