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How the UK armed Gaddafi

Tom Fox argues that the arms trade means our foreign policy will never be humanitarian.

March 31, 2011
6 min read

With a no-fly zone established and British aircraft among those bombing Libya, we once again have a government smearing themselves with the war paint of humanitarianism. For David Cameron this granted him the moment he has no doubt been hungry for, when on the day after the Security Council vote he stood in the Commons and give a speech that will lazily be referred to for years to come as his “Churchill” moment.

The purpose of the mission, he told the Scottish Tory conference later that day, was “to end the violence, protect civilians and allow the people of Libya to determine their own future, free from the brutality inflicted by the Gaddafi regime.” It is a brutality no doubt, but as the list of arms exports licensed to Libya over the last eight years reveal, brutality is extremely valuable when commodified. Since the rapprochement with the country following their 2003 decision to no longer develop weapons of mass destruction that climaxed in Tony Blair’s 2005 visit to Gaddafi, deals worth many millions and too numerous to mention have been signed, all available for dissection at the Foreign Office website. The increase in licensing of exports following Blair’s visit is stark, from a meagre £500,000 in 2004 to a £41 million deal in 2005. Nor were these “non-violent” weapons: heavy machine guns, components for tanks, APCs and turrets were shipped to Gaddafi’s regime alongside thermal imaging equipment, gun mountings, radios and fire control systems.

At the same time, Shell signed a deal worth £550 million to explore oil fields off the coast of Libya. Blair’s part of the bargain was not only arming the regime, but also deporting dissident refugees in Britain back to Libya where they faced torture and even death. In 2007, he helped ensure contracts worth £350 million in return for the release of the Lockerbie bomber, famously embrace in Tripoli by the man who ordered the bombing; BP also pushed for the prisoner transfer agreement to go ahead, because it feared delay would negatively affect offshore drilling deals with Gaddafi’s regime. Nor have the Coalition done anything to reverse this. The prisoner transfer accounts for the massive increase in arms deals in 2010, larger than every other year since 2003 put together with £213.2 worth of licenses granted for the first three quarters alone, two of which occurred on Cameron’s watch. Of this £3.2 million was small arms ammunition, used over the last few months to tear Libyans apart across the country. Sniper rifles were also sold; on the day after Cameron’s speeches about protecting civilians, pro-Gaddafi snipers were shooting “whoever they see”.

Neither Labour nor the Coalition can claim that they truly believed Gaddafi had reformed. As leaked US embassy cables reveal, these huge deals took place even though in 2008 the government refused a Libyan request for an export license to deliver 130,000 Kalashnikovs from Ukraine via British company York Guns, denying the license because they were concerned “that the intention may be to re-export the weapons, particularly to armed rebel factions backed by Khartoum and/or Ndjamena in the Chad/Sudan conflict”. As the cable noted, “the fact that York Guns and GOL (Government of Libya) officials have been vague about the intended end-use of the 130,000 Kalashnikov rifles raises…questions about the extent to which Libya is still involved in supplying military materiel to parties involved in the Chad/Sudan conflict.” Despite this suspicion, multi-million pound deals have gone on regardless.

The cables also reveal the extent of corruption that remains within the Libyan economy, with Gaddafi and his children siphoning money wherever it is made, including using the National Oil Corporation, through which any foreign company hoping to exploit Libyan oil must deal, “as a personal bank”. In 2008 the head of the NOC sought to resign, fearing for his life, after Gaddafi’s son Muatassim demanded $1.2 billion in either cash or oil shipments so that he could set up his own private “military/security unit”. Oil money flows not to the Libyan people, but to the Gaddafi family and their allies, and from there to those military units most loyal to the regime, effectively the private armies of Gaddafi and his sons.

It is this murky world that Tony Blair and his two successors propped up. Blair mentioned none of this when he wrote an article in The Times on the weekend the bombing began, in which he referred to “our duty to help people in the Middle East” achieve democracy and human rights. As Cameron said in response to Gaddafi’s declaration of a non-existent ceasefire, actions speak louder than words. His own actions when he toured the Middle East hawking weapons to corrupt and bloodthirsty autocracies reveal that he truly is the “heir to Blair”. With the UK and US now openly talking about arming the rebels, we have to seriously question whether or not those arms will go to the rag-tag guerrillas dressed in football shirts who launched the revolution from the back of pick-up trucks, or the suited and uniformed ex-Gaddafi insiders and former officers whose intentions are not clear and who will no doubt have no problem with maintaining the flow of oil and guns, in a Libya divided by and locked in civil war if needs must. Given their dedicated and lucrative support of Gaddafi as recently as six months ago, can we really trust our government’s claim to humanitarianism?

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