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Wed 20 November 2019
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Soldiers from countries including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Saudi Arabia have attended Britain’s top military training centre – is it professionalising despots?


In 2018, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), the British Army’s initial officer training centre, received almost £4.6 million to train up officer cadets from 33 countries around the world.

In total, some £4,593,801 was paid by overseas states for officer training in 2018, according to figures released to Byline Times following a Freedom of Information request. 

As the Ministry of Defence only released figures that rounded up or down to the nearest five, the total number of cadets taught from each country would range from a low of 67 to a high of 121, with Afghanistan, Jordan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates leading the way.

The main concern is that a number of troops attending the Berkshire academy were sent from countries listed as of ‘human rights’ concern by the British Government. In June 2019, the Foreign Office released its annual list of 30 ‘human rights priority countries’. Of these, seven countries or territories had sent soldiers to train at Sandhurst, namely: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Saudi Arabia.

Other countries who also sent troops include: Albania, Azerbaijan, Barbados, Chad, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Jamaica, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Montenegro, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine and the USA.

There are two main responses to any concerns relating to training being offered to soldiers from countries with poor human rights records.

The first supports the training up of soldiers. It follows the belief that Sandhurst will instil in those soldiers a sense of morality and instruct them on how a just rule of law should be enforced in conflict.

The second is that Sandhurst equips soldiers with the advanced skills and techniques of the much-admired British Army and, in so doing, has the potential to make such soldiers more efficient in carrying out human rights abuses. In short, it professionalises despots. This concern is very real.

In Afghanistan, pro-government groups, including the Afghan National Security Forces, have reportedly been involved in violence against civilians – and they were responsible for 20% of the civilian casualties in 2017. The US State Department considers that Afghan security forces “occasionally acted independently”. Those security forces are reportedly responsible for carrying out a range of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and the torture and sexual abuse of children.

With a score of 12 out of 100, Freedom House qualifies Bahrain as one of the least free countries in the world, according to its Freedom in the World 2017 Index. Bahrain has many vague laws relating to national security which enable authorities to arrest people on thin charges such as ‘inciting violence’ or ‘insulting the king’ or ‘damaging the prestige of the Government’. Violent repression of peaceful protest is very common; this became obvious during the crackdown on protests in 2011, during which the regime carried out serious and systematic violations of fundamental freedoms.

Since mass demonstrations in January 2011, Egypt has undergone several regime changes and has witnessed serious political turmoil. The human rights abuses perpetrated by the state apparatus remains a worrying constant; both police and security forces frequently employ violence in dealing with civilians and opposition members, and often enjoy impunity for their actions. 

Between 2010 and 2017, the situation in Iraq has been extremely unpredictable, with the country subject to cycles of warfare, including ethnic and sectarian killings by ISIS or government forces and government-backed militias. Human rights abuses in the country have remained widespread, in part due to rampant corruption, a lack of transparency and torture and executions carried out by security forces and groups working under the authority of the Iraqi Prime Minister. Human rights reports have shed light on widespread human rights abuses committed mainly against Sunni citizens by government-sponsored Shia militias operating under the umbrella term, the Popular Mobilisation Forces. These reportedly use arms from military stockpiles provided by a range of countries, including – allegedly – the UK.

Saudi Arabia has also been under intense scrutiny in recent years in relation to human rights violations carried out by its armed forces. In June this year, the UK’s Court of Appeal decreed that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful, in a critical judgment that also accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law. Thousands of civilians have been killed since the civil war in Yemen began in March 2015 with indiscriminate bombing by a Saudi-led coalition – one accused of being responsible for about two-thirds of the 11,700 killed in direct attacks.

So, while there is no evidence that soldiers trained in Sandhurst have returned to their countries to carry out human rights abuses, the fact that some soldiers from such countries are being trained in the UK’s main military academy – even as their countries are identified by the Foreign Office as countries of concern – should be a matter of public debate. The fact that it takes a Freedom of Information request to find out this reality is concerning in itself.

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