The United Nations report a death toll “much more than 4,000” in Syria, mostly anti-government protestors killed by the country’s security forces.
On 23 November, a Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council said it was “gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed” in Syria.
I can now report that Northern Ireland plc, acting perfectly legally, has done its bit to help prop up the repressive regime.
Anti-President Assad activists have posted this video of Northern Ireland manufactured armoured vehicles, apparently being used to hunt down regime opponents in Homs region last month.
The video shows a Shorts Brothers (Northern Ireland) Shorland armoured patrol car and armed personnel carrier patrolling the streets, reportedly in search of anti-government activists.
Jane’s Armour and Artillery has Syria listed as a customer of the Northern Ireland firm for this sort of hardware dating back to at least the 1980s.
One arms trade source described the line of vehicles this way:
Shorlands Internal Security Vehicles… Designed to provide Internal Security Forces with a robust, low cost armoured vehicle in operations to control civil unrest or against terrorist organisations.
An arms exhibition catalogue from the 1990s described the Shorland S55 armed personnel carrier thus:
designed for safe and rapid deployment of security forces in high risk areas. Has eight gun ports for machine guns or riot guns. A roof mounted machine gun hatch and electronically operated smoke grenade dischargers are optional.
As for the armoured patrol car:
designed to operate efficiently in situations ranging from hard-hitting action on the streets to the rigours of cross-country patrol.
Pictures posted online from Syria have shown the Northern Ireland exported vehicles mounted with machine guns and bristling with other such “optional” accessories.
Those featured in the video may be a slightly different models, but their purpose is fairly obvious. Though exported decades ago, the vehicles are certainly seeing some “hard-hitting action on the streets” now, with a mounting death toll across Syria.
This Shorts Brothers business ultimately became part of the massive Thales Air Defence company and the armed vehicle business was sold off. As far as I am aware, in 1999 the Australian company Tenix Defence Systems acquired all of the vehicle business of the now BAE Systems Australia, including the Shorland family of armoured vehicles. It would be interesting to know which company has been maintaining the Syrian-owned vehicles all these years.
Even if one despises the use to which they are being put, one can certainly admire the longevity of these vehicles. But that very longevity underlines the need for the utmost care in agreeing the export destination of such military hardware.
The violent crackdown against pro-democracy protestors across the Middle East and North Africa has been fueled by a weakly regulated international arms trade. Northern Ireland is a key cog in that arms trade machine, as outlined in Amnesty’s 2007 report, Northern Ireland: Arming the World (pdf).
Globally, large quantities of arms, ammunition and other military hardware have been supplied to repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, despite evidence that they could be used to commit serious human rights violations.
That’s why Amnesty and others are campaigning hard to see the UN agree a binding Arms Trade Treaty in 2012. If the Arms Trade Treaty is to be effective, it must provide guarantees that no government will permit the sale of arms if there is suspicion that they might fuel human rights abuses.
In fact, the very sort of thing that is happening right now in Syria.
I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.
I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan