Theresa May is considered a moderate in this country. In a demonstration of her reasonableness, she recently attacked the government’s foreign aid cuts in parliament, and correctly warned of the ‘devastating impact’ of the policy ‘on the poorest of the world’. In order to ‘act according to our values’, she argued, aid spending should be restored to 0.7 per cent of the budget. While the government’s aid cuts are odious, May’s record leaves her without a leg to stand on.
It may now seem odd to recall that Theresa May was at times lauded in the mainstream press throughout her tenure as Prime Minister and even upon her resignation. At the left of the spectrum, the Guardian commented on May’s ‘tenacity, stamina and probity’. She was a politician who had ‘the aspiration to be principled’. She was ‘serious’ and ‘cognisant of the responsibilities attached to her office’ denoting a clear contrast with her successor Boris Johnson. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg noted that ‘[n]o one could ever accuse the departing prime minister of not caring enough’—indeed, her ‘agony’ in announcing her resignation was clear evidence of her sense of duty. May also received a good deal of criticism: the Times was damning of the outgoing Prime Minister—her failure could be explained by the fact that ‘she was woefully ill-suited to the job’; she didn’t deliver Brexit and made a series of tactical errors.
Conspicuously absent from these appraisals of May’s legacy was mention of her support for heinous atrocities during her time in office. This is keeping in line with standard practice as far as our national media is concerned—the only crimes worthy of serious attention are those committed by our official enemies. Our own crimes are often not even acknowledged, an oversight which happens to be extremely convenient in enabling state power to be exercised unaccountably. It is unnecessary to delve into the long history of respectable opinion subordinating itself to such interests, which are invariably characterised as noble and virtuous.
May, like her predecessor and successor, continued arms sales and other forms of support for Saudi Arabia, such as technical assistance from British military personnel. It was under May that the Saudis bombed a Yemeni school bus, killing at least forty children. But this was no obstacle to the government granting more arms export licences. It was under May, too, that Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by the Saudi government. But that wasn’t a problem for continued arms sales either. Nor was the evidence that British munitions have been used in attacks on civilian objects, with one 2016 parliamentary report saying that the use of British weapons in such violations was likely ‘inevitable’. In fact, in the months after the Khashoggi murder the government approved a further £650 million in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, no doubt an illustration of May’s ‘probity’ and her ‘aspiration to be principled’.
The Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto explained that Britain ‘should play an active, leading role in the world’ in order to ‘extend around the world those values we believe to be right.’ Even a cursory analysis of our foreign policy reveals that ‘values’ are little more than a pretext for state power to do as it pleases. If our ‘values’ dictate that cutting foreign aid is wrong because it inflicts unnecessary suffering, then so is supporting atrocities. The hollowness of proclamations about Britain’s commitment to human rights are plainly obvious.
Amnesty International, expressing the consensus view of human rights organisations, has referred to ‘a pattern of appalling disregard for civilian lives displayed by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition’ and ‘a pattern of attacks destroying civilian homes and resulting in scores of civilian deaths and injuries.’ An August 2018 UN report on human rights in Yemen called on the international community to ‘[r]efrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict’. Predictably, May’s government ignored this plea. The report also concluded that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners may be guilty of war crimes, a minor detail which May’s government also found easy to ignore. NGOs have challenged these arms sales in the courts since 2016, but have so far been unable to force a change in arms export policy.
It happens that international law and British domestic law prohibit the aiding and abetting of war crimes. Principle VII of the Nuremberg Tribunal (set up after the Second World War) provides that ‘[c]omplicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity … is a crime under international law.’ Despite the attention that Brexit consumed domestically, Theresa May deserves to be remembered for more than her difficulties in managing Parliament. She, like David Cameron, Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, and their accomplices, should be held to account for her role in supporting atrocities, a role that seems to have been quietly forgotten.