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Azeem Ibrahim

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The Scandal Everybody Seems to Have Missed

Posted: 01/31/2011 2:17 pm

I don't know how this particular WikiLeaks revelation has not been much, much bigger news, involving as it does cluster bombs, the Special Relationship, a plot to keep important information from the UK Parliament and the country, and a secret legal loophole that let Britain get around its treaty obligations.

Cluster bombs, for those who are not familiar with them, are a type of bomb that open up in mid-air, dropping hundreds of 'bomblets' that explode individually across a wide area, making reasonable targeting impossible. They are, in other words, a type of bomb designed so that the bomber can't really restrict the damage to what he is trying to hit, but will certainly take in buildings or people he is not. If the bomblets do not explode, they pose a similar problem to landmines: They can suddenly explode later -- sometimes long after the battle or war has ended -- injuring or killing whoever is nearby.

In 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed a treaty with 108 other countries, committing Britain not to use them. The US maintains that they are still useful; it did not sign the treaty.

The awkward part is that the US keeps some of its cluster bombs on its bases on offshore British bases, deemed British soil.

So this presented a neat little problem for then UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Should he insist that the US remove them from British territory, in accordance with the treaty his government had just signed? Or should he allow them to keep them there, so as not to ruffle feathers across the Atlantic? It was clear that either decision would have consequences.

The WikiLeaks cables reveal that the UK government decided that the best thing to do would be to cook up a legal loophole to let the Americans keep their cluster bombs on the British bases, and to keep it a secret from Parliament and the nation.

Quite simply, this is a scandal.

It is a scandal that Foreign Office Mandarins felt contemptuous enough of the role of Parliament to feel compelled to withhold the information from Parliamentary debate. In fact, the leaked cables reveal that this was extremely deliberate and quotes officials as saying that they did not want to reveal the information to Parliament lest it 'muddy' the debate, shorthand for saying that they did not want Parliament to debate the issue with all the facts at their disposal.

It is a scandal that they felt contemptuous enough of the rule of law to consider that even if we had signed a treaty that said that Britain would no longer retain cluster bombs on British soil, they could nonetheless allow cluster bombs on British soil -- even if they were not British ones -- without telling anyone.

And it is a scandal in terms of our relationship with America. Once again it reveals that officials preferred to serve America's interests over and above the Prime Minister's expression of those of Britain. (It was Brown as Prime Minister who had explicitly overruled military advice in pushing for Britain to sign the treaty.) After the Iraq War and the lopsided extradition arrangements between Britain and the US that resulted in the US being able to extradite Brits more easily than Britain can extradite Americans (Gary McKinnon being the most famous example), one would have thought that mandarins might have twigged that such behavior towards the superpower neither makes a government popular nor is in the national interest.

And it is also lucky for the Labour party that David Miliband did not become its leader. Had he done so, the leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition would be facing some rather unsavory questions about his treatment of nothing less important than Britain's sovereignty right now. And the wider point is that as various books and interviews reveal ever more about the previous government, a steady drip drip of revelations would have concentrated national attention on Labour's past at a time when the party's leadership has to try to make itself about the future. The fact that David Miliband is not Labour leader right now is good for Labour.

This sorry incident does not put anyone who was involved in it in a good light. Except perhaps WikiLeaks.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly, a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

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