Today
Tue 22 June 2021

The UK is failing in its moral commitment to tackle foreign repression, says Carole Concha Bell

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced last June the sanctioning of individuals who commit human rights abuses, citing the Magnitsky Law, originally passed in the United States as a way of sanctioning the Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

“Those with blood on their hands won’t be free… to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks,” Raab told Parliament. “You cannot set foot in this country, and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”

However, it remains unclear whether the UK’s ostensible crackdown on human rights abusers will also lead to it refusing trade deals with offending nations.

From all of the available evidence, it seems that it won’t.


Chilean Repression

One of the UK’s longstanding trading partners is Chile. In 2019, trade between Chile and the UK totalled $1.21 billion.

With an investment stock of $11.95 billion in 2018, the UK is the fourth-largest European investor in Chile, accounting for 11% of European investment in the country.

Chile is an also important destination for Britain’s arms exports, worth $13.3 billion in 2019. The UK is now second in the world for arms exports to Chile – exceeding France and Russia.

But, controversially, the UK may be exporting the very types of munitions being used to quell dissent in the Latin American nation. Tear gas and so-called ‘non-lethal weapons’ have contributed to the maiming of hundreds of protestors – individuals who have taken to the streets since the end of 2019 to rally against the Government’s extreme neo-liberalism.

Despite Chile’s slick PR machine working hard to present the country as a wealthy, stable modern democracy, the reality for most Chileans living in the OECD’s most unequal country is quite the opposite.

As students, feminists and environmental activists take to the streets to demand equality, repressive laws that originated in the era of General Augusto Pinochet are still being used to suppress dissent. Far from softening his approach, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera has taken these draconian laws and strengthened them, resulting in the criminalisation of protest.

Open license requests for information on UK arms exports to Chile have been made several times by campaigners and journalists, including by Byline Times, concerned about reports of rights abuses.

However, evidence has been repeatedly denied, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claiming that it “would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states if it was disclosed”.

Campaign groups in the UK have repeatedly called on the Government to rebuke Chile’s repression and halt sales of arms to the country – but have been met with silence.

Chile’s indigenous Mapuche community has consistently been the target of state abuse in recent years. Just last week, online reports seemed to show an armed contingent swooping in on the Aracuania region of Temucuicui, forcibly arresting a young widow and her seven-year-old child, Guacolda, who is the daughter of Mapuche man Camilo Catrillanca – killed in 2018 by security forces. Guacolda was dragged out of a vehicle, hurled to the ground and detained. This happened while the family was making its way to nearby Angol to attend the hearing of the murder case.

“The Chilean Government wants to replicate the same scenario that is lived in Colombia, although they are totally different realities,” Reynaldo Mariqueo from UK-based NGO Mapuche International Link told Byline Times. “In Araucanía there is no jungle, there is no guerrilla, there is no drug trafficking or organised crime on the part of the Mapuche… today they apply the same repressive techniques learned in Colombia, against the Mapuche people.”

A “confident, independent nation, and an energetic force for good” is how the UK seeks to position itself in the post-Brexit era, according to the Government. Yet, in practice, it continues to trade with countries that commit appalling human rights abuses. Critically, an amendment to the European Union trade bill – that would have prevented trade with genocidal nations – was overturned in mid-January by 319 votes to 308.

While trade negotiations present a unique opportunity for the UK to place pressure on states that violate human rights, Chile’s importance to UK trade may deflate Britain’s bravery to act.

Yet, by continuing to export arms and munitions to Chile – and failing to speak out against abuses that are not acceptable in any modern democracy – Britain is complicit in the repression of the Chilean people.

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