The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Boris Johnson

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says he’s comfortable with the UK selling billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, which have been used to kill thousands of civilians in Yemen.

Johnson says there needs to be an internationally recognised means to look at the funding of terrorism, following allegations of various Gulf States funding terrorist groups overseas. “The answer I think is for the whole Gulf region to take a long hard look at themselves and to work on what was called the Riyadh Agreement of 2014 and to have a serious, internationally based means of monitoring the financing of terror.”
Johnson has talked about a potential Commonwealth Visa, and says Kiwis won’t be worse off under it than they are now, but he’s confirmed to The Nation that he can’t guarantee anyone will be better off.
Johnson says the UK can’t sign a trade deal with New Zealand until leaving the European Union, but says it will happen “as soon as possible after 2019”.

Lisa Owen: Well, shall we start with Brexit? You’ve had a referendum; you’ve had a general election. It’s going to be a long process, but just for the record, is it absolutely going to happen? You’re out?
Boris Johnson: Yes. Yes, it is, and it will be a great thing, and it will go well. And, of course will be… There’s a negotiation that’s got to take place, and we’re confident we can do a deal that’s in our interests but also in the interests of our friends and partners across the Channel in Europe. It’s got to work for them. They’re huge exporters to the UK. We want something that will be really positive for both sides. We want a strong EU, strong UK, deep and special partnership between them, and what that gives us the freedom to do is think again about our global role and how we can re-engage with partners around the world, such as New Zealand.

Yeah, your friends further afield. So New Zealand, obviously, would be keen for a trade deal. We have an arrangement with the EU, but Britain is the most important to us; the UK is most important in terms of trade. So you can’t do a deal with us until you’re totally out of Brexit,…
That’s correct.

…so how far off is it going to be, realistically, for us?
Well, you’re absolutely right that we can’t sign anything – you know, we can’t ink anything in – because we’ve got a duty to honour our obligations to the rest of the EU as long as we’re in the EU, and, clearly, it would start contaminating the negotiations if we began actively discussing, negotiating in parallel with other friends at the same time. But we can certainly start to look at the broad shape of a deal where the opportunities are for both sides.

So realistically, though – realistically – when do you think something like that would be signed and sealed, from our point of view?
As soon as possible after 2019. I can’t give you a time or a date, but you can’t ink it in, you can’t do anything like that until after we’ve left the EU.

But what you’re saying is that we could be ready to go.
But we could be ready to go, and so we’ve set up all sorts of… There’s already working groups who are looking at it. I think we’ve actually hired some of your trade negotiators to help us through the whole process, because New Zealand, as I’m sure you’re aware, has a formidable reputation around the world for trade negotiations.

Mm. And the other thing, obviously, we’re interested in is this idea of a Commonwealth visa. But again, you would have to wait for Brexit to be signed, sealed and delivered, wouldn’t you? And you’ve said that nobody’s going to be any worse off with arrangements that are made, but we’re a special friend, aren’t we?
You are.

Are we going to be–?
We love New Zealand. We love Kiwis coming to—

Right. So are we going to be better off under some kind of Commonwealth visa?
Well, I don’t want to, uh, pre-empt what we’re going to—where we’re going to—

Give us a little teaser.
Well, what I’ve got—Obviously, there’s a couple of points to make. First of all, the arrangements that we have at the moment with New Zealand – in spite of some glitch that there has been on visas, for which I apologise – I think are pretty good. As I understand it, we have Ancestry visas; we have overseas experience for young people. We are pretty much open to talent from New Zealand that wants to come to the UK, and, I want to stress, we want it to come. We are gluttons for New Zealand talent, and… we also have an obligation to come out of the EU in a sensible way and take back control of our borders and our whole immigration system. So that will give us the opportunity to think again about our relations with other partners. How exactly, whether that produces what you describe as a Commonwealth visa or whatever, it is too early to say, but we want to have something that is very friendly for New Zealand.

So not worse off, but you can’t give us a cast-iron guarantee that we’d be better off?
You know, I just don’t know—I don’t want to give a cast-iron—I don’t want to… Obviously, there’s going to be a trade negotiation, by the way, in which I would think that the question of movement of people, from my experience, will be one of the issues. One of the most flattering things about being British is how much people seem to want to come to our country. Virtually everywhere I go, that’s the number-one thing they want to do. But hang on – let me get this right. Irrespective of any trade negotiation we do with New Zealand, we will also want to be open and receptive.

Okay. Let’s look further afield. The UK – terrorism has been in the minds of many people with what’s happened in Manchester and London, and on the bigger issue of supporting terrorism and states that support terrorism, I want to ask you if you think it is okay that the UK sells billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, which has killed many thousands of civilians.
Well, a couple of points sort of wrapped up together. It is certainly true that we’re all engaged in a struggle against terrorism, and although, thank heavens, New Zealand hasn’t experienced anything of the kind here, we are very grateful for the cooperation that we get with New Zealand intelligence services in the work that we do together in that struggle – first point to make. But the second thing is, look, on Saudi Arabia and the UK arms exports generally, we have one of the toughest regimes in the world when it comes to the application of the consolidated guidance into breaches of international humanitarian law. We look very carefully at all the contracts, all the use of the weaponry that is supplied by the UK, in a way, I think, with a kind of punctiliousness that I don’t think any other country does. You may know that we just had a court case,…

I do know, yeah.
…in which the government was judicially reviewed by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade group – quite properly wanting to investigate this question about whether we had fulfilled our legal obligations to Parliament and to the country in issuing those arms exports certificates. And the courts found that we had.

But I just—I’m sorry to interrupt you, but we’ve got limited time, and I think it’s really important we get through this. So, yes, you’re right; the court absolutely said that you’d stuck by the legal letter of the law, but I’m asking you how comfortable you are with this and how much collateral damage you are prepared to stomach in Yemen, where these weapons are being used.
I think on what’s happening in Yemen, you mustn’t forget that there was a coup by the Houthis that got rid of the legitimate government of Yemen. They’ve been, actually, launching missiles at Saudi Arabian territory. There is a very serious problem in Yemen. Now, no one is going to dispute that it is an appalling conflict and that we want it to end and we share your views and the views of millions of people around the world who are appalled by the humanitarian suffering.

But does that justify selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which the UN says, in I think it was 2015, is responsible for 60% of child deaths in Yemen? And you would’ve seen the pictures. There’s 17 million people there who are on the verge of starvation,…
Yes. Yes.

…and there are many schools and hospitals that have been bombed, and you’re supplying Saudi with these weapons. Are you comfortable with that?
I think the point I would make—

From an ethical or moral point of view. Put legal to one side.
I think the argument—Yes, I am. The argument I would make is that—

Sorry – you said you are comfortable with that?
The argument I would make is that we do go through these procedures that are extremely punctilious, and in terms of breaches of international humanitarian law, involved in the use of UK-supplied weaponry, we are very, very scrupulous, and, as I say, the court has recently found in our favour. But there’s a bigger political point, which is that if we disengage, if we just boycotted Saudi Arabia, if we pushed Saudi Arabia away and we said—That would in no way disrupt the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia, by the way – that’s an important point. But it would also mean that there was no longer any means by which the UK could exercise the pressure that it currently does on Saudi Arabia to behave in its military actions in a way that is compatible with international humanitarian law; we would be vacating that role. We would be stepping back, and I have to say that I don’t believe for a minute it would do anything to—by doing so, I think it would, if anything, intensify the suffering that is going on in that area. So what we want to see is a political solution. We want to…

Well, your prime minister—
…and we hope very much that the Houthis will see sense, will follow the road map that has been laid out, will come to an accommodation with the… what was the legitimate government of Yemen and come up with a new constitutional arrangement. That is the way forward for the people of Yemen, but—

Your prime minister has been talking about having what she describes as uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing conversations with people over terrorism. And to start that conversation, couldn’t you be having a conversation like that with Saudi Arabia by simply, for example, releasing a report that your own country has at the moment about the funding for terrorism? Because the suggestion has been that Saudi Arabia is putting huge amounts of money into funding terrorism offshore. So this does come back to your country, so why not start that conversation and make those documents public?
You’re making a very good point about the funding of terror by countries in the Middle East generally, including in the Gulf region, and you may know that there’s a row going on now between Saudi Arabia and Qatar about Qataris’ alleged funding of terrorist groups. And as you rightly say, there have been suggestions that Saudi actors have been involved in funding extremist madrasas and so on and so forth. Everybody knows that’s been going on. The answer, I think, is for the whole of the Gulf region to take a long hard look at themselves and to work on what was called the Riyadh Agreement of 2014 and to have a serious, internationally based means of monitoring the financing of terror. And that is what we would like to establish, and…

We’re running out of time, so I just want to put it to you—
…it could be done between all the key parties in the Gulf, and I think that international observers would be absolutely essential.

There’s two issues – the supply of the weapons and funding of terrorism. So on the supply of weapons, your critics would say, ‘You should just stop doing it. It’s immoral and unethical.’
Well, I think I’ve given you an answer to that.

On the funding of terrorism, which is an entirely separate thing, I think the way to go is to get all these countries to focus on what they’re doing, to accept what they’re doing and to have an international, an internationally supported way of monitoring it, whether it’s through the GCC or the World Bank or some institution that looks at what it happening, looks at the flows of finance from the Gulf— to terrorist groups.

So why not put that information out there that’s in the report? Why not put the information out there as to what Saudi’s involvement is in funding? Why not do that?
Well, because, as far as I know, that report was never intended to be made public, and I think there’s some misunderstanding about what is actually in that so-called report. But what I’m not going to deny for a second is that there are concerns in the UK, in New Zealand, around the world about funding for terrorist groups that comes from Gulf countries, whether it’s from religious actors or private individuals or whoever. We need to look at what is happening there, and we need to crack down on it. And so that is, I think, the solution to the current dispute in the Gulf.

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