Nine Foreign Policy Secrets the Government Is Hiding From You
Arms deals, torture, murder... we don't know if the government has more information on these crimes, because they're hiding the files.
An excerpt from a document released last year by the National Archives at Kew, west London, which reveals how officials helped former prime minister Margaret Thatcher carefully manage negotiations with the Saudis to land the UK's biggest ever arms deal (Photo by Dominic Harris/PA Archive/PA Images)
Last week the government released thousands of old files to the National Archives, where you can now go to see them. This Great British tradition takes place whenever government documents become 30 years old, and they are generally released at New Year or in "silly season" – AKA the summer, when political journalists have so little to do they get sent to cover the tennis.
The press are invited to have a sneak preview before they are released. Generally, the idea is to find anything vaguely related to the Second World War and write articles about that – after all, this is the only period of British history that gets a proper airing. So with the recent release, the BBC, Guardian and Mail all had stories about the Nazi Rudolf Hess, who committed suicide in a British-run prison in 1987.
The real story, though, is about pervasive state censorship and the hundreds of files that the government did not release to the Archives. Three decades later, they are still deemed too sensitive, and could expose a side of British history that today's politicians do not want the public to properly understand. They are alluded to in National Archive spreadsheets, but are not actually released.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office told VICE that "overall we only redact around 1 percent of content across all historic files that we review". If that's the case, then in countries where they're refusing to publish lots of files, there must really be something they want to hide.
Here are nine cover-ups VICE has found:
1) SAUDI ARMS DEALS
Almost half of the Foreign Office's files about Saudi Arabia – 17 out of 35 – from 1986 are not being published. These include four files about the "Sale of Tornado and Hawk aircraft to Saudi Arabia". These files would shed light on the relationship between Britain's most controversial ally, the House of Saud, and Britain's largest arms dealer, BAE Systems. Recently, Amnesty claimed that the Saudi bombing of Yemen, including schools, medical facilities, mosques and markets, was helping BAE make more sales – something the company denied. And following the Manchester terrorist attacks, questions were raised about maintaining relations with a country that funds terrorism around the world.
In the 1980s, the company secured the £43 billion "Al-Yamamah" arms deal with Saudi to sell the Kingdom fighter jets. The deal has long been marred by allegations of bribery and corruption, and new information is being hidden from us. Other missing files include one titled, "Training for Saudi Arabian special security forces".
2) TOTAL SHUT DOWN ON PRINCESS DIANA'S VISITS TO THE MIDDLE EAST
One function of British Royals is to kiss the figurative butts of Royal families in parts of the world where monarchies still call the shots. The Foreign Office has 28 files about Royal visits to the Middle East in 1986. None of these – zero – are being made public.
Most of them are about a trip Charles and Diana made to staunch British allies Saudi, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain in November of 1986. Then, as now, these places were no shining beacons of human rights. Two Bahraini opposition activists, Radhi Mahdi Ibrahim and Dr Hashim al-Alawi, were reportedly tortured to death in the months before Princess Diana visited that small country. The Bahraini King's "terror campaign" against the Bahrain National Liberation Front saw around 100 people swept up during the year. Many of them were tortured by the Security and Intelligence Service, which was run by a British officer Colonel Ian Henderson, dubbed the "Butcher of Bahrain". A file called "Internal political affairs in Bahrain", which could perhaps shed more light on this episode, is being withheld from the public.
3) BRITISH INVOLVEMENT IN MODERN INDIA'S DARKEST DAYS
As VICE exclusively revealed last week, the Foreign Office is hiding almost a third of its files about India from 1985. Sikh MPs have called it a "cover-up" and demanded an inquiry. It matters because, back then, India was carrying out a decade-long crack-down on Sikhs, starting with the "Golden Temple" massacre in Amritsar in 1984. One of the missing files is about India's National Security Guard, an elite commando force that raided the Sikh faith's holiest site in 1986 and 1988, and may have received SAS training.
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4) AFGHAN REVERSAL
Britain's foreign policy on Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition in the last three decades. Today, the Taliban are our sworn enemy. The Ministry of Defence say that 456 UK personnel died while serving in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015.
Back in the 1980s, however, Margaret Thatcher visited an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and told the assembled crowd, many of them mujahideen, that "the hearts of the free world are with you", in their fight against the USSR and its "godless communist system which is trying to destroy your religion and your independence". Not surprising, then, that the Foreign Office is hiding a file from 1985 called "UK policy towards Afghanistan".
5) GUATEMALAN DISAPPEARANCE
The central American nation of Guatemala borders Belize, one of Britain's last colonies and somewhere that British soldiers were stationed throughout much of the 1980s to prevent Guatemala annexing the country. Although the Guatemalan military was officially Britain's enemy in the region, VICE has previously revealed acts of collusion between the British army and Guatemala's military leadership. In particular, one disturbing episode where a British army agent called Pedro Barrera was handed over to Guatemalan authorities who then murdered him. A former Belize Special Branch Officer involved in the incident said, "We sent a man to his death." The Foreign Office is now hiding a file from 1987 called "The military in Guatemala".
6) HONG KONG OMERTA
Hong Kong wins the cover-up competition. Over 104 Foreign Office files on Hong Kong from 1988 are being kept secret. This represents almost half of the 219 records from that year. Back then, Hong Kong was still run by Britain, but the handover date with China was looming. Many of the hidden files are called "Future of Hong Kong: Basic Law". One is ominously called, "Future of the judiciary in Hong Kong".
But British rule in Hong Kong had its own restrictions. One censored file is called "Hong Kong: Vietnamese refugees; closed camp policy". This refers to the British policy of detaining Vietnamese boat people who fled their war-torn country. At the height of this policy, Hong Kong's Whitehead detention centre held almost 30,000 refugees. By comparison, Britain's nine immigration detention centres can today only hold about 3,000 people at once. Conditions at the Hong Kong camp were poor and eventually led to a break out in 1996, with police firing hundreds of tear gas canisters into the detention centre.
Hiding files about this policy has become the Foreign Office's standard practice. Files about Hong Kong's closed camps have been repeatedly hidden. There is good reason to be concerned. VICE previously revealed that British troops stationed in Hong Kong in 1981 planned to open fire on crowds instead of using tear gas.
7) IT'S A GAS
It owns Harrods and the Shard, and is under blockade from its Gulf neighbours for allegedly sponsoring terrorism. At a time when the British public needs to understand Qatar as much as possible, the Foreign Office is hiding files that could shed light on the complex foreign policy of this controversial ally. Two files from 1986 called "External Political Affairs of Qatar" and "Qatar – Gas" are being hidden by the Foreign Office.
8) DON'T SPEAK ILL OF THE DEAD
Nepal, which produces Britain's loyal Gurkhas, also has a strong Maoist movement who fought a long civil war against the ruling monarchy. The Foreign Office is hiding a file called "The Royal Family of Nepal". Such files are often censored to prevent offence to allies. However, given that most of Nepal's royals were wiped out in 2001 by the crown prince, before he turned the gun on himself, it is hard to know who this file might offend.
9) YEMENI DISCUSSIONS
Almost 40 percent of Foreign Office files from 1986 about the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen are being hidden (11 out of 28). Most of them are about the coup, which overthrew socialist President Ali Nasir Muhammad. Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni expert, said it was "very suspicious" that the Foreign Office is keeping these files secret. Thousands died in the 1986 coup and many Yemenis are still demanding truth and reconciliation from that period.
A "National Dialogue" was set up in 2013 to try to resolve the conflict in Yemen. It tried to address truth and reconciliation for old wounds, like the 1986 coup, which Shiban says was a "hot topic", even after almost three decades. The British government supported the National Dialogue, but did not tell participants that it held these secret files on the coup.
BONUS ROUND – PALESTINIAN FILES RELEASED 100 YEARS LATER
The good news is that the government has decided to release many of its Colonial Office files on Palestine from when the country was under British control. Some of these files date back to almost 100 years ago. Much of the content is mundane – if you want Palestine Railway staff service records, you're in luck – which begs the question of why they were kept secret for nearly a century. Other files about the Palestine Police Force might have more in them.