Thornberry: Foreign forces trained in UK could commit human rights abuses

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Countries whose police and military are trained by UK forces could use their expertise to carry out human rights abuses, Labour has warned.

The shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, pledged at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton that under a Labour Government, the same controls would be placed on providing training as to the sale of arms.

She said this was not currently the case and the “only control applied to requests from overseas forces to receive training in the UK are internal, unpublished risk assessments conducted by the Ministry of Defence and Home Office”.

But she said neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Home Office had been able to confirm how many requests had been turned down in the last five years.

Speaking at a fringe event on Monday, she said: “There is no practical difference between selling Saudi Arabia an attack jet to use against civilians in Yemen, and training a Saudi pilot to fly it.

“So, nor should there be any difference in the law that governs those decisions, or the transparency requirements that come with it.”

Ms Thornberry said the British armed forces and police were “rightly regarded as among the most skilled and professional in the world”.

And she added: “It is no surprise that countries from every continent send their personnel to the UK to learn from ours.”

She said that there were benefits to this, such as tackling collective threats of terrorism and cyber-crime, as well as building international relationships.

“But there is an inescapable problem,” she said.

“If all countries wish to learn from ours, we will inevitably face situations where some of the training being provided in Britain is used to abuse human rights overseas, ranging from the brutal repression of peaceful protesters to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war.”

Under a Labour Government, she said: “like arms exports, it will become unlawful for ministers to authorise military and police training where there is a serious risk it will be used by the recipient forces to violate international law, or engage in acts of internal repression, or external aggression.

Myanmar protest
Myanmar, which has sent police to receive training in the UK, has been accused of human rights abuses by protesters across the world (Aaron Chown/PA)

“Like arms exports, the decisions made by ministers on training will be published on a quarterly basis and, like arms exports, those decisions will be subject to scrutiny by Parliament and challenge in the courts.

“And, most importantly, when we conduct the root-and-branch reform of our arms export regime which I promised here in Brighton in 2017, whatever changes we make to that system will apply equally to our provision of training as well.”

In a report released alongside Ms Thornberry’s announcement, Labour said Saudi Arabia had received at least 141 military training courses since the launch of their campaign in Yemen.

The report claimed that Cameroon, which has launched military campaigns against rebels within its own borders, had received a variety of courses, including battle training for platoon commanders, courses for intelligence directors, and three rounds of advanced command courses for senior officers.

Myanmar received five rounds of courses on how to uphold human rights responsibilities before the 2017 Rohingya genocide, which Labour said showed there was an incorrect belief that training would improve states’ behaviour.

Ms Thornberry said: “If we reform these rules correctly, it will not affect the prestige or popularity of the training we offer in the UK, but it will give us greater confidence that those lessons will always be used as a force for good, to uphold the rule of law and protect innocent civilians around the world, and never – as much as we can ever help it – to do the opposite.”

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