Defence Systems and Equipment International arms fair at the Excel Centre, Docklands, London. Photograph: Rex Features
The latest revelations about the authorisation of chemical exports to Syria proves that British ministers should avoid two things – lecturing the public on personal morality and lecturing the world on human rights. Both will come back to bite them. While Nick Clegg commented on the pages of the Guardian earlier this year that the UK was a "beacon for human rights", his business secretary was authorising companies to sell chemicals capable of being used to make nerve gas to a country in the middle of a civil war.
Clegg almost certainly knew nothing about the potential sales, and indeed the sales themselves might have been quite innocent, but our history should tell us that precaution is the best principle. If the companies had got their act together to ship the goods to Syria, they would probably have received government support through a unit of Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, called UK Export Finance. This unit has sold weapons to some of the worst dictators of the past 40 years – and had a role to play in the most serious chemical weapons abuses since the Vietnam war.
Britain had been happily selling weapons to Saddam Hussein, our ally during his war against the new Islamic Republic, in the early 1980s. The UK government also allowed the sale of the goods needed to make a chemical plant which the US later claimed was essential to Saddam's chemical weapons arsenal, with the full knowledge that the plant was likely to be used to produce nerve gas. Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and against civilians within his own country in 1988, killing tens of thousands.
This is old news, but we now also know that until the fall of the Shah in 1979, Britain also sold Rapier missiles and Chieftain tanks to Iran's autocratic regime – weapons that were undoubtedly also used in the Iran-Iraq war.
Both sets of arms were effectively paid for by the British taxpayer, as both Iraq and Iran defaulted on the loans given by Britain, and they became part of Iraq and Iran's debt. Though Iran still "owes" £28m to Britain, plus an undisclosed amount of interest, this didn't stop Britain guaranteeing £178m of loans to Iran to buy British exports for gas and oil developments in the mid 2000s, thus breaking its own rules.
This new information adds to a litany of such cases – supporting arms sales to the brutal General Suharto of Indonesia, both Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt and military juntas in Ecuador and Argentina, the latter using its British weapons to invade the Falkland Islands.
In opposition, Cable railed against the use of taxpayer money to support such sales, and his party promised to audit and cancel these debts and stop the sales. In power, he behaves the same way as his predecessors. While regularly claiming such deals are a "thing of the past", Cable has signed off £2bn of loans to the dictatorship in Oman to buy British Typhoon fighter aircraft, the sale of a hovercraft to the highly indebted Pakistan navy and an iron ore mine in Sierra Leone which has not even been assessed for its human rights impact.
Cable has ripped up Liberal Democrat policy to keep on supporting the sale of dangerous goods. He continues to insist on the repayment of debts run up by the UK selling weapons to now deposed dictators. Far from being a beacon for human rights, the UK has little legitimacy around the world when it comes to taking sides in wars – a fact that parliament recognised in its welcome vote last Thursday.
Next week, Britain's true role in the world will be on show in Docklands – when the world's "leading" military sales event meets in London. As war and the aftermath of war still rage across the Middle East, one way we as citizens improve our country's damaged reputation is to protest against such an appalling expression of Britain's role in the world. Authorising the export of chemicals to Syria is simply part of a long trend of support for dangerous technology which undermines this country's legitimacy when it comes to speaking about human rights.