When Egyptian activist Salma Said was asked at a discussion in London on women and the Arab Spring about what people in the West could do to help, her answer was immediate and direct:
“You could stop your politicians selling arms to the people who are shooting us.”
Said spoke from experience: she was hospitalised after being shot during protests that followed the Port Said football stadium tragedy that left at least 74 people dead.
A masked man on an armoured personnel carrier (APC) shot at her, Said claimed, leaving her with over 30 pellets in her legs and more in her stomach and face – one narrowly missed her eye.
For the men and women who have found themselves up against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, (SCAF) the risk of losing an eye is high – Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights claims to have heard a high-ranking CSF officer instructing soldiers to aim at the protesters’ heads.
Said goes to the heart of the issue when she rejects Western concerns about human rights that are not backed up by hard policy.
Hers is an on the ground experience resulting from what the joint committees on arms export controls referred to in their report last week as “an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time”.
The 158 arms licenses that had to be withdrawn because of fears that British equipment could be used for human rights abuses in the region during the Arab Spring suggests that, for the present government and its predecessor, it was arms exports that came out on top in that conflict.
“Whilst the government’s statement that ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications’ is welcome, those considerations do not appear to have weighed sufficiently heavily on either the present government or its predecessor,” is how the report puts it.
For those who endured the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak for so many years, the suggestion that it was his response to the Arab Spring uprisings that alerted the British Government to the need to restrict arms sales must beggar belief.
Yet it was after Mubarak’s downfall that Said, and thousands like her, have encountered armoured vehicles and other weaponry that the British Government has been criticised for calling “crowd control goods”.
Amid concerns that SCAF is refusing to relinquish power, the fact that there are still 124 licenses for exports of arms to Egypt will be a cause for further alarm.
These licences are among 600 still in existence in the Middle East and North Africa where government crackdowns on the uprisings have been extremely brutal.
The government is still granting licences for the export of armoured 4×4 vehicles to Syria and in all, 97 licences were granted for sales to Bahrain for equipment including sniper rifles, body armour and small arms ammunition.
People who want democracy in these countries need the British Government to abide by the committees’ recommendations that it “apply significantly more cautious judgements” when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes intent on using them for internal repression.
What they don’t need is more of what Prime Minister David Cameron demonstrated when he stopped off in Tahrir Square in a show of support to the revolutionaries at the same time as he was travelling with representatives of eight defence firms.
This gap between the rhetoric and policy in practice is what makes women like Said distrust expressions of concern about women’s rights from people in the West.
The plight of women in Afghanistan was, of course, part of the sabre rattling that preceded the invasion of the country in 2001.
But 10 years on, 70 international leaders who met in Tokyo in Japan to discuss billions of dollars in aid for Afghanistan did little to alleviate the concerns of women’s rights campaigners that their interests are being sold down the river as NATO now seeks to negotiate a withdrawal in 2014.
Consistently denied a place at the negotiating table, women were disappointed that the aid was tied to conditions about corruption, but not to firm commitments about safeguarding women’s rights.
The outrage expressed at the execution of a woman named Najiba in Afghanistan accused of adultery, and more recently, at the assassination of Hanifa Safi, need backing up by commitments to ensuring that women’s voices are heard when it comes to deciding the future of the country.
The fact that women’s rights have been hijacked for the purposes of liberal interventionists should be a concern to women in the West. We should therefore tread carefully when supporting politicians who make pronouncements about democracy and human rights, ensuring that we always read the small print. In this respect, the arms trade is a feminist issue.
This article first appeared on HuffingtonPostUK