As repression in Chile brings back memories of Pinochet, Steve Shaw reports on how the Government remains secretive about its support.

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In the months before the world went into lockdown to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Chile were rising up in their thousands to demand an end to neoliberal polices that have created a society rife with inequality.

On the streets, protesters were met with gunfire, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Behind the closed doors of interrogation cells, they were met with torture, rape and sexual violence.

An investigation by the UN’s Human Rights Office said the country’s police and army had “failed to adhere to international human rights norms and standards relating to management of assemblies and the use of force”. Their report cited “extensive allegations” of “sexual violence by the police against people held in detention, many of whom appear to have been detained arbitrarily”.

Given the UK’s sordid, corrupt and likely illegal historical support of the brutal, authoritarian regime of General Pinochet, the UK should be extremely cautious and sensitive when considering arms sales and provision of training to the country.

Andrew Feinstein,

The violence and repression meted out against protesters has been compared to the dark days of military dictator General Augusto Pinochet — the same man responsible for implementing the free market economics that are the root cause of today’s unrest. Throughout Pinochet’s 17-year rule, more than 27,000 people were tortured and 2,279 executed yet his biggest cheerleader was the British Government under Margaret Thatcher who, following his arrest, declared the dictator had “brought democracy to Chile”.

Today, 20 years after Thatcher praised Pinochet’s version of “democracy”, the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Boris Johnson is refusing to say whether it has helped to train the security forces who are carrying out the worst human rights abuses the country has seen in decades. 

A Freedom of Information request submitted by Byline Times asked the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to confirm whether any form of police training had been provided to members of Chile’s military or law enforcement between the start of 2018 and the date the FOI was received in March. It was also asked to disclose information on meetings between British officials and the Chilean Government where the possibility of training the country’s military was discussed. 

All of this information was refused on the grounds that it “would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states if it was disclosed”.

When asked whether the Government had carried out any evaluation or assessment into whether military training provided by the UK had contributed to human rights abuses in Chile, the Foreign Office said it “does not hold this information”.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade told Byline Times: “These are all important questions and they must be answered. The authorities in Chile have been widely accused of repression and human rights abuses against activists, it’s important that we know if this Government has played a role in enabling those abuses. If the UK Police College is working with repressive and authoritarian forces we should have every right to know what training has taken place, and what that training has consisted of. Transparency is key, and cosy relations with repressive governments should never be prioritised over human rights.”

The only area the Government did offer some transparency was on the subject of arms sales.

In March, Byline Times revealed that of the UK’s £164 million worth of arms licensed to Chile since 2008, 50% had been in the last 12 months. Including an Open Individual Export Licence issued on 12 June 2018 which allows an undisclosed company to sell “smoke canisters”, “smoke/pyrotechnic ammunition”, “tear gas/riot control agents”, “training CS hand grenades” and “training tear gas/irritant ammunition”. An open licence means that the company can export unlimited amounts of these items for a period of up to five years. It also does not need to report how much has been delivered.

When the Foreign Office was questioned about this open license in the FOI, it claimed there is “not a clear risk that the items on this licence might be used for internal repression” as they will be used in situations “unrelated to riot control” and for “training purposes only”. It added this could include “parachute displays”, “signalling” and “illumination and testing”.

Mr Smith said that since Byline Times revealed the military exports to Chile, the British Government has published its latest quarterly figures for arms sales. They show that since October 2019, the sale of a further £2 million of military-related items has been approved, including £1.5 million worth of ammunition. The Chilean Government has also become a regular guest at the UK’s arms fairs, receiving invites to the foreign office’s ‘Security and Policing 2020 Arms Fair’, held in Farnborough in March and the Department for International Trade’s annual Defence and Security Organisation event in October.  

Carole Concha Bell, a member of the Chile Solidarity Network, who lost members of her family during Pinochet’s rule, called the prospect of the British Government lending support to Chile “extremely disappointing”.

“Let’s not forget that Chile’s actions during the uprising have been widely condemned by the international community and three international monitors,” she said. “We are talking about rape, torture and the deaths of 30 people and the maiming of hundreds. How the UK can contribute to this while condemning Hong Kong is simply hypocritical.”

One of the world’s leading experts on political corruption and founder of anti-corruption organisation Shadow World Investigations, Andrew Feinstein, said secrecy over Chile is another example of the Government “keeping secret the worst of the UK’s arms dealing with and training of unsavoury governments and regimes”.

“While there is an obvious need for some secrecy in arms deals, the UK has taken this to an extreme so that the Government and British defence manufacturers have effectively been able to corrupt countries around the world, arm amongst the vilest dictators on the planet and train some of the most brutal police and troops in secret and with virtual impunity,” he continued.

“In respect to Chile, given the UK’s sordid, corrupt and likely illegal historical support of the brutal, authoritarian regime of General Pinochet, the UK should be extremely cautious and sensitive when considering arms sales and provision of training to the country. Given Chile’s current febrile context in which the security forces have been identified as committing torture and sexual violence against the country’s protesting citizens, Britain should halt all arms sales to the country and desist from providing and training or support to the security services. Instead Britain should be demanding that the human and political rights of Chile’s people should be protected at all costs. Currently, as usual, Britain is placing profits before people and principle.”


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