The government has barred UK military personnel from training the Hong Kong police force and two other organisations amid worsening relations with China.
Both the army and the RAF run limited drill instructor programmes for Hong Kong’s police force, its Government Flying Service and its Sea Cadet Corps, but these have now been put on hold, the Ministry of Defence told the Observer.
The UK says the decision is being taken because of the Covid-19 crisis. But a spokesman confirmed the contracts will be reviewed when the pandemic is over.
“The UK government has been clear that the enactment and imposition by China of national security legislation for Hong Kong constitutes a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, directly threatening the rights and freedoms of those in Hong Kong,” an MoD spokesman said. “In light of coronavirus restrictions, all training with personnel from Hong Kong has been paused. It will be re-evaluated when restrictions are lifted.”
The move, which follows a decision by the UK to halt the export of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong, has drawn attention to the wider role Britain’s armed forces play in training military personnel overseas.
In a response to a parliamentary question asked by the Labour MP Sam Tarry, the MoD has revealed the contracts its armed forces have with countries around the world.
It has emerged that the UK provides commando training to the Philippines and runs officer training programmes for China and Egypt. It also trains military personnel in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cameroon and Nigeria.
“Many of these armies have appalling human rights records and are responsible for upholding brutal and oppressive laws,” said Andrew Smith of the pressure group Campaign Against Arms Trade. “By strengthening and collaborating with them, the UK is making itself complicit in their abuses.”
We must prevent the skills and tactics their service personnel are learning here being deployed against civilians
The UK also has several contracts with the armed forces of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.
“Alongside significant arms exports and the recent sale of a state-of-the-art warship to Bahrain, the extent of training provided to Bahrain’s sectarian military during this period raises serious questions about the UK government’s complicity in destabilising the Middle East,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
In total, the UK provides military training to 26 countries which are classed as “not free” by the US-based thinktank Freedom House.
“Our armed forces are the international gold standard for excellence and professionalism, and it is no surprise that their counterparts from other countries want to come here to train under them,” said Emily Thornberry, the shadow secretary of state for international trade.
“But when some of those countries are involved in brutal conflicts like the ones in Yemen or Libya, or violent repression of their own people, as in Cameroon and the Philippines, we have a moral duty to prevent the skills and tactics their service personnel are learning here being deployed against innocent civilians on their return.
“The government should immediately review these training contracts to ensure that we can be proud not just of all the training our forces are providing, but of how it is being used overseas.”
But Jack Watling, a research fellow at the defence thinktank Rusi, said “the devil was in the detail” when it came to evaluating these contracts.
“It’s very easy to say a military has a dubious human rights record and therefore we shouldn’t engage with them,” he said. “While human rights abuses can happen because of state policy, they can also happen because the individuals carrying out policies lack core competencies.”
Watling pointed out that in the case of some countries with dubious rights records – such as Turkey – the UK has obligations to train their troops under Nato agreements. And he said the UK had an interest in helping the Philippines – where Islamist groups have taken foreign hostages – learn “urban commando” skills.
An MoD spokesman said: “All our defence engagement activity is designed to educate where necessary on best practice and compliance with international humanitarian law, and each defence relationship is taken on a case by case basis.”