Wild beasts and parliamentary action

Kaye Stearman asks: “Why do MPs care so passionately about animal rights while failing to tackle issues like the arms trade?”

One night in June as I was drifting off to sleep, I was galvanised by the passionate debate being played out on the normally soporific Today in Parliament on Radio 4. The programme is noted for its erudition in the explanation of arcane bills and ministerial soundbites but to hear genuine anger and passionate advocacy is rare.

Tiger jumping through hoop

Even more surprising was that the debate was led by backbenchers and cut across partly lines. Who, I wondered, were these MPs and what was their cause. Surely it must involve an issue such as violation of human rights, poverty, famine, war or the arms trade.

Alas, it was none of these. To be fair, it did involve the rights of living beings – in this case wild animals. MPs united in support of a law that would ban lions, tigers and other wild animals from circus shows in the UK. The government had tried to impose a three-line whip, backbenchers had refused to knuckle under and a heartfelt debate on the wrongs of animal mistreatment ensued.

Now I am as keen on lions, tigers and other jungle beasts as anyone, as long as they stay a long way from me (preferably on a television screen). I’m not that keen on circuses, and haven’t been to one for years. But in the course of the debate, it emerged that there were only 30 to 40 wild animals in UK circuses, and many had been there for years and known no other life. So a worthy cause  – but hardly one at the centre of national policy or which impinged on people’s everyday lives.

Why, I ask myself do we care so much about animal rights and so little about human life? We don’t want to mistreat circus animals but we are happy to continue to sell weapons to the wild beasts of the political world – the dictators, absolute monarchists and other tyrants who mistreat their own people and declare war on their neighbours. Over the past decade we have sold weapons to the rulers of Libya, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, whose autocratic governments have used them to suppress their own people.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring have swept away the corrupt ruling dynasties of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, while Gaddafi in Libya is battling on in Tripoli. The absolute monarchies of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have stayed resolutely in place. The UK has revoked a few arms licences – although not a single one to Saudi Arabia, the biggest beast of all.

Arms on display at DSEI 2009

Arms on display at DSEI 2009

I am glad to see that Britain’s MPs, and especially backbenchers, are engaged and passionate, willing to defy the government line. The circus animal bill is just one example. More recently Select Committees have humbled the mighty Murdochs (the big beasts of the media world) and BAE Systems (the feral beast of the arms industry) who have attempted to delay and evade payment of almost £30 million reparations to the people of Tanzania.

Great – let’s have more passion, more engagement, more anger, more defiance. Above all, let MPs direct their anger at the human wild beasts that bestride our world – and that includes the arms dealers. One way to get your MP up to speed on the issue is to join Campaign Against Arms Trade ‘s mass lobby of parliament on 13 September to protest against the continuing sale of arms to repressive regimes.

And why that day? It’s the opening day for the London arms fair, Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI). Around 20,000 arms dealers, are expected to converge on London to sample, buy and sell deadly arms. The ExCel Centre, in London’s Docklands, will be the biggest circus in town and filled with wild beasts. It’s time to say, No to both.

Learn more at the CAAT website.

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