A marker of a functional liberal democracy is an ability for groups to organise without state or police interference. Another is an ability to protest against the state in a peaceful way without facing reprimand. Authoritative regimes like North Korea and Iran are rightly condemned by the global community when they violently react to autonomous groups organising extra-state or counter-state movements.
On the other hand, the United Kingdom can be praised for allowing a vast array of groups to organise and protest against various perceived injustices. This, though, does not mean the United Kingdom is a liberal democratic utopia. Authoritative measures are still carried out by the British police with the approval of the government.
In September 2017, over 100 activists were arrested after they protested against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event in London with 46 subsequently taken to trial. The DSEI is a leading event where the defence and security sector can come together to trade and share knowledge.
It is co-organised by the Defence and Security Organisation, a government department. Each transaction that occurs at the event has to be verified and approved by the government. The government is also allowed to invite who it wants, even if it contradicts other projects. For instance, at the DSEI event, delegates from six countries which the UK government itself consider to be human rights abusers were invited. This included stakeholders from Saudi Arabia who represented a country currently engaged in a state-sponsored terrorist campaign against Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticised by journalists, international human rights organisations and international bodies for their role in Yemen. Robert Fisk, an award-winning Middle East correspondent for the Independent, reports that there is increasing evidence that the Saudi regime is deliberately targeting civilian infrastructures. These infrastructures would be influential in rebuilding Yemen once the war is over. Their destruction means the effects of the war will be felt long after the immediate conflict is over.
On top of this, Human Rights Watch brought out their report on the situation in January 2018, reporting that since December 2017, 55 civilians, including 33 children, alone have been killed by six coalition attacks. There has also been a deliberate attempt to block humanitarian aid into the country. These factors, along with others, constitute what the Middle East director at Human Rights Watchdog, Sarah Leah Whitson, calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
What Fisk and Human Rights Watch describe are war crimes committed by a Saudi coalition. By being complicit in the transaction of arms to regimes like Saudi Arabia, the UK government, too, is complicit in war crimes. If you were a shopkeeper at a store that sold axes, you would not sell an axe to a known axe-murderer just as if you were facilitating an arms trade event, you would not sell weapons to countries committing war crimes.
However, despite this elementary moral principle, the UK government still invited representatives of the Saudi regime, as well as representatives from other regimes committing atrocities around the globe. For every war crime committed whilst using a weapon bought at the DSEI event, the UK government is complicit. If we applied the same Nuremberg principles which were set up by the allied forces after the Second World War, then members of the UK government would be convicted for their involvement.
The DSEI event itself has committed crimes on a global scale by facilitating arms sales to countries committing war crimes, which is likely to impact untold numbers of civilians around the world.
Protesting against the DSEI event was a moral imperative for many, which led to thousands doing so. Their methods were peaceful with activists exercising their right to protest. As Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) report, protesters set up blockades and other creative protests to disrupt the event as much as possible. However, many activists were still arrested, many were taken to trial and convicted.
This demonstrates that even leading liberal democracies can show their authoritative side and complicity in criminal repressive wars.