The Real Threat to National Security is a Tory Government, Not Jeremy Corbyn

By Andrew Feinstein and Paul Holden

The authors are researchers & writers on the global arms trade. Feinstein is the author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” and Holden of “Indefensible: 7 Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade.” They write in their personal capacities.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn emerged from relative back-bench obscurity to lead the Labour Party, one of the most consistent attacks against him is that he is a threat to national security. This is one of the Tories’ key arguments against him. It is an attack based on the Tories dangerous and misguided view of national security that not only enables massive corruption, undermines our democracy and the rule of law, but actually makes us less rather than more safe a few weeks ago.

The supposed threat posed by Corbyn to British national security was first raised by David Cameron immediately after Corbyn was elected Labour leader in September 2015.[1] He repeated the fallacious claim ad nauseum during the debates on Trident. Almost immediately after Theresa May announced the election she had spent months promising wouldn’t happen, Boris Johnson used a column in the Sun to argue that Corbyn ‘seems to have no grasp of the need for this country to be strong in the world.’[2]

According to the 2015 National Security Strategy[3], the UK’s biggest security concerns include terrorism, cyber warfare, the emergence of state-based threats (read: Russia) and the erosion of the rules-based international order. The irony is that it is the Tory obsession with selling arms to dictators abroad in hugely corrupt transactions and engaging in poorly planned international interventions that inflame at least two of these threats — terrorism and the erosion of the rules-based international order. One of the most recent and egregious examples of this is Yemen.

For the last two years Yemen has been in the grip of a brutal civil war, in which neither side has displayed much regard for human life or dignity. The government forces have been supported by a Saudi-led coalition that has sought to quell a Houthi rebellion. A large part of the Saudi-coalition’s military strategy has been systematic and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets such as hospitals, schools and public gatherings. In some cases, the Saudi coalition has deployed a ‘double-tap’ bombing strategy: first wiping out a gathering of civilians and, once emergency services have arrived, dropping a second bomb to wipe them out too.[4]

The UK has played a key role in aiding and abetting war crimes and constant violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. Between March 2015, when the Saudi-led bombing started, and March 2017 the UK government approved 194 export licenses to Saudi Arabia, worth more than £3.3bn.[5] In this time over 4,000 innocent civilians have died, not just as ‘collateral damage’, but also as victims of attacks specifically targeting civilians. Millions more are now threatened with famine due to a naval blockade put in place by Saudi Arabia that has prevented relief supplies entering the country. The Saudi foreign minister has confirmed that British military advisers are providing assistance in the operation room of the bombing campaign.

Despite this, the Tory government has refused to temporarily halt weapons sales. It has even ignored the recommendations of a September 2016 joint report by the International Development and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees in Parliament. It argued that weapons sales to Saudi be halted until an independent inquiry establishes whether violations of international humanitarian law have committed.[6]

The UK government’s Saudi weapons sales have been challenged in the UK High Court by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) who argue that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia violate the UN Arms Trade Treaty. So much for upholding the rules-based international order.

The Saudi-led coalition’s attacks in Yemen, supported with UK weaponry, have created the perfect conditions for terrorism to thrive. As the government’s own 2015 National Security Strategy acknowledges, instability allows for the ‘exploitation of weak governments or ungoverned space by terrorist groups and criminals.’ Largely as a result of the Yemeni civil war and the Saudi-led coalitions tactics, the International Crisis Group claims that the ‘Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been.’ The solution suggested by Crisis Group: finding a way to negotiate an end to the conflict rather than fuelling it, and stopping attacks that result in high civilian casualties and create sympathy for terrorist insurgents. The UK’s approach of denying human rights abuses in Yemen and continuing to sell the arms used by the Saudi coalition can only hinder moves to peace.

As a further indicator of the security implications of questionable interventions, consider Libya, a stain on the conscience of both the Tories and vast majority of the Labour government. Jeremy Corbyn was one of only 15 MPs to vote against the UK’s Libya intervention. John McDonnell was another.

In September 2016, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee produced a report examining the 2011 intervention in Libya and the country’s subsequent ‘collapse.’ It is a harrowing and excoriating read. As it is, David Cameron’s prime foreign policy undertaking has evaded almost any critical media scrutiny, while claims that Corbyn threatens national security gets blanket coverage.

As brutal summaries of total foreign policy failure go, you can’t get much harsher than the opening few sentences of the Foreign Affairs Committee report:

In March 2011, the United Kingdom and France, with the support of the United States, led the international community to support an intervention in Libya to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. This policy was not informed by accurate intelligence. In particular, the Government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element. By the summer of 2011, the limited intervention to protect civilians had drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change. That policy was not underpinned by a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya. The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.[7]

It is in the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons that one finds the most arrogant disregard for the mechanics of ensuring long-lasting peace. By the time the UK invaded Libya, Gaddafi had built a stockpile of weapons so large that it could never be realistically used by his military. A large portion of it had been sold to Gaddafi by EU member countries, including the UK. After the fall of Gaddafi, the weapons were seized by various non-state actors and have been trafficked to countries including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria. Some of the small arms have even been found in the hands of Boko Haram. The result, according to the Committee’s report has been increased ‘instability in Libya’ and the spread of arms in a manner that has ‘enabled and increased terrorism across North West Africa and the Middle East.’[8] When Lord Richards, the head of the UK’s armed forces during the Libyan intervention, testified before Parliament, he said that securing Gaddafi’s stockpiles was a security priority. Too bad he could not remember ‘doing anything to achieve it.’[9]

In addition to the mayhem in Libya itself and the proliferation of sophisticated weaponry across the MENA region, the UK’s ill-judged intervention created yet another breeding ground for terrorism, just as it had in Iraq. As historian Mark Curtis has reported, both the London Bridge attacker, Rachid Redouane and the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi fought in the 2011 British/NATO war against Qadafi.[10] Redouane joined a militia which went on to send jihadist fighters to Syria. In Libya, he is believed to have fought with the Liwa al Ummah unit, which fought with Al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, Al-Nusra, which has been covertly supported by the UK. The UK government allowed these fighters free to travel from the UK to Libya and then on to Syria.

The supporting and sometimes arming of non-state groups in the world’s most febrile regions often leads to unintended consequences, or blowback. The most notorious example of blowback remains the US and Saudi arming and financing of the then anti-Soviet mujahedeen, who later formed the nucleus of the Taliban and even elements of Al Qaeda, some of whom were involved in the tragedy of 9/11. It is also worth remembering some of the billions of pounds of commissions that were paid to Saudi royals on possibly the world’s most corrupt transaction, the Al Yamamah arms deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia, were inadvertently diverted from the account of the Saudi ambassador to the US through his wife’s account to two of the 9/11 hijackers.

Despite this distant and recent history our current government remains oblivious to the recurring consequences of this misguided, short-term, arms-sales-driven approach to national security: intensified conflicts in the world’s most febrile regions, myriad forms of blowback and increased insecurity at home.

There are worrying indications that a Tory government post-election will do little to change its current and past ways. When Donald Trump ordered a strike in Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Tory grandees, and even some in the Labour Party, gave their usual knee-jerk support. While Assad’s use of chemical weapons is beyond appalling, the responding strike was in clear violation of international law and took place before the broader international community could formulate an appropriate response. It is difficult to see how you maintain a rules-based system when you criticise one regime for breaking them and laud another for doing the same thing.

In a further lurch towards a Trumpian undermining of such a rules-based system, the Tory Defence Secretary recently indicated that the government will opt out of international human rights agreements in future conflicts and extend combat immunity, shielding soldiers and the MoD from as much legal action as possible and preventing negligence claims going to court.

Even within a very narrow, primarily military, definition of security, the Tories are failing the UK. But it can be argued that we should also broaden our understanding of security to encompass the notion of ‘human security,’ which argues that a person’s security is about more than just freedom from military threats. It is hard to argue, for example, that a person or a population is secure when they are ravaged by disease or suffer from hunger and economic insecurity.

Tory policy is anathema to human security abroad and at home. Instead, it has overseen and encouraged mass suffering and immiseration for millions around the world and profound insecurity in the lives of millions of UK citizens. Four million children are now officially poor, with estimates suggesting further increases in child poverty by 2021.[11] Just over 900 000 people are on insecure and unpredictable zero-hour contracts[12], which have been rightly banned in numerous countries. More people are thought to have committed suicide due to Work Capability Assessments in the three years between 2010 and 2013 (600) than have been killed by terrorism in the UK since 2000 (90).[13] The NHS and the police forces have both been the target of relentless cuts. And this is all, of course, ignoring the greatest threat to mankind: man-made climate change. What are the Tories doing on this?

Arms to dictators. Failed military interventions that create greater terrorism and instability. Undermining of the rule of domestic and international law. Policies that put millions on the breadline and have led to an explosion of low-paid, insecure zero-hours contracts. Not a single whisper about the need to address global climate change or how it will reverse cuts to subsidies for renewable energy. A refusal to even criticise President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. This is the Tory past, and is almost certainly going to be its future.

And Jeremy Corbyn is the threat? No, he is a man who promises a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia pending an investigation, who proposes cleaning up British arms sales, who suggests we should devote at least as much energy to making peace as we have to waging war.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-claims-jeremy-corbyn-is-a-threat-to-national-security-10498651.html

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-labels-jeremy-corbyn-national-security-threat-mutton-headed-mugwump-a7704611.html

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-security-strategy-and-strategic-defence-and-security-review-2015

[4] For one of the most notorious examples of this strategy, see: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-saudi-un-idUSKCN12K2F1

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/saudi-arabia-arms-sales-yemen-war-uk-government-us-donald-trump-obama-aid-a7643066.html

[6] https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmbis/679/679.pdf, p. 47

[7] https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmfaff/119/119.pdf, p. 3

[8] Ibid, p. 28

[9] Ibid

[10] http://markcurtis.info/2017/06/07/a-london-attacker-and-uk-covert-operations-in-syria-and-libya/

[11] http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/4-million-children-now-living-in-poverty-in-the-uk/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/mar/03/zero-hours-contracts-uk-record-high

[13] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/many-people-killed-terrorist-attacks-uk/