Sunday, 6 September 2009

At Arms Length? The UK and the Arms Trade

Roll up, roll up, the circus is in town! For four days this week a little bit of London will be turned into the largest arms fair in the world. What, London! you say? Surely that kind of thing happens in tents in the arse end of Libya? Well, actually, it happens on our own soil with the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) fair which brings together "senior international trade and military experts from across the entire supply chain in an optimal business environment". That environment being one in which doom mongers rake in the wonga from equipment that makes killing and injuring people you don't like such a breeze.

Not only is this fair morally repugnant, it is the flagship event of an industry rife with corruption, described by Transparency International as being the second most likely to involve bribery. Just as disgusting is the news today that a Libyan delegation has been invited to the fair amid growing evidence that the government is looking to continue trading with the Libyans after the release of the Lockerbie bomber. There will be a number of protests during the week from groups including Disarm DSEi, Campaign Against Arms Trade and East London Against the Arms Fair. I'd like to be there myself but unfortunately I have to work my notice so can't take the time off.

Back in December I wrote the following article about the news that the UK is now the world's leading arms dealer and its role in supplying weapons to shady regimes. Unfortunatey I've lost the sources I used at the time but have made an effort to find them and link where possible. Do read on, if you have a moment.

December 2008

Did you know the UK is now the world’s leading arms dealer? UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the Government’s trade promotion organisation, said that a £9.7 billion increase in business over the past 12 months had put the UK ahead of the United States in the global market. Over the past five years altogether, the US still dominates, with $63 billion worth of arms exports but the UK is second with $53 billion.

The increase is nothing to be proud of, but try telling UKTI. Digby Jones, Minister for Trade and Investment, said of the news: “As demonstrated by this outstanding export performance, the UK has a first-class defence industry, with some of the world’s most technologically sophisticated companies.”

Read that as most technologically sophisticated merchants of deadly weaponry.

In October this year, Oxfam released a report into how irresponsible arms deals undermine developing nations’ effort to meet their Millenium Development Goals. The MDGs were agreed to in 2000 by 189 countries to improve areas such as education, health care, poverty and environmental sustainability by 2015. According to the MDG Africa Steering Group, “The continuing threat of conflict threatens to reverse development gains in many parts of the continent.”

In 2003, Oxfam and Amnesty estimated 500,000 people die every year from small arms, roughly one every minute, and Kofi Annan said that “in terms of the carnage they cause, small arms could well be described as weapons of mass destruction.” We need only look as far as Mumbai for the shocking truth behind this statement.

Now Oxfam’s latest report highlights how irresponsible arms deals jeopardise the MDGs by fuelling conflict and human rights abuses as well as diverting government funds from development projects. The report calls for an immediate adoption of an international Arms Trade Treaty to stop these arms deals, but with the UK willingly taking part in such deals, support from our government doesn’t look likely.

The most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report identified 21 “major countries of concern.” Another FCO report also identified ten of these countries as recipients in UK arms deals. As the leading trader, the United Kingdom must shoulder a fair deal of the responsibility for human rights abuses and impeded development worldwide.

The third largest defence contractor in the world is Britain’s BAe Systems, who are currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office regarding payments “allegedly made to a South African official who had influence over the £1.5bn contract BAe won to supply planes - at nearly twice the price of a rival bidder.” Joe Modise, South Africa’s defence minister at the time, is alleged to have taken a £500,000 bribe from BAe. Meanwhile, according to the Oxfam report, “South Africa’s progress towards the MDGs is slow or in some cases is even moving in reverse. The figures for underweight children, child mortality, and access to improved sanitation have all deteriorated since 1990.”

Furthermore, the Financial Times recently published an article claiming BAe had “paid at least £20m to a company linked to a Zimbabwean arms trader allied to President Robert Mugabe.” The trader, John Bredenkamp, is accused by the UN of supplying equipment to the Zimbabwe air force.

Away from Africa is the most controversial of BAe’s arms deals, which was thrust into the limelight when the British government stopped another investigation, drawing damning criticism from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for its failure to tackle bribery and corruption in a trade described by Transparency International as the second most corrupt in the world.

In 1985, the UK began to fulfil a number of massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, known as the Al-Yamamah contracts. The main contractor was BAe Systems. In the early ‘90s, the National Audit Office investigated these contracts, but never released the findings, the only NAO report never published. In 2003, The Guardian newspaper alleged a £20 million slush fund to bribe Saudi officials had been set aside by BAe Systems, prompting an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

According to the Guardian, this isn’t the first SFO investigation into the Al-Yamamah deal. In 2001, the SFO referred similar allegations to the Ministry of Defence making the ridiculous decision to leave any investigation to the MoD, who subsequently blocked any such activity.

In late 2006, BAe Systems was negotiating a huge contract to supply new Typhoon fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia, valued at £6-10 billion. On the 1st December 2006, The Telegraph claimed the Saudis had given the British government ten days to drop the investigation or lose the deal to a rival French bid. On 14th December 2006, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith discontinued the SFO investigation, citing the “need to safeguard national and international security”.

In April this year [2008] the High Court ruled that by dropping the investigation the SFO had acted unlawfully. The SFO appealed against the decision to the House of Lords, who unanimously voted in their favour and overturned the decision in July. Despite the SFO’s unflinching subordination, the United States’ Department of Justice continue to investigate the contracts and even detained BAe CEO Mike Turner for twenty minutes at an American airport earlier this year.

This is a Saudi Arabia well known for its human rights abuses. In 2006, a US State Department report highlighted “significant restriction of civil liberties… and infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments.” Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report drew attention to the continued persecution of Ismaeli muslims in Saudi Arabia, noting in particular how following a confrontation between government and Ismaeli demonstrators in April 2000 “Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.”

Indonesia is no better, but according to the Guardian “British arms sales to Indonesia rose from £2m in 2000 to £40m in 2002” and as recently as 2007 we were negotiating a deal to sell Hawk jets. The same year, HRW published a report regarding the Papua province that found “both army troops and police units, particularly mobile paramilitary police units, continue to engage in largely indiscriminate village ‘sweeping’ operations in pursuit of suspected militants, using excessive, often brutal, and at times lethal force against civilians.” According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, violence in Papua has been facilitated by the use of British equipment.

Indonesia was also picked out in the Oxfam report, and an earlier HRW report, for the way the military is funded by its own businesses as well as the government. This money is controlled by military interests rather than civilian interests, thus hampering its ability to meet the Development Goals, yet the British continue to deal with such regimes.

As of April this year, the UKTI now devotes more staff to the promotion of the arms trade than all other sectors of British industry put together. One of its main roles is to promote Britain at international arms fairs like that in Malaysia, which included delegations from such model democracies as China, Burma, Indonesia and the Philipines and customers from Somalia and Iran. Its work is defended because of the economic contribution of arms sales, despite these sales only accounting for 1.5% of total exports and only 0.2% of the UK workforce.

In today’s climate of fear, this violence we facilitate sounds a lot like the sort of terrorism we are apparently fighting. According to, the definition of terrorism is:
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

Western governments tend to conveniently forget the first clause of that last sentence - that a government can use terrorism to govern. You don’t need to be a political scientist to realise the abuses of the Saudi and Indonesian governments are ‘terroristic’, and Britain encourages this through corporate and state sponsored terrorism.

With such power backing the global arms trade, the chances of the UK agreeing to an Arms Trade Treaty appear slim. Personally, I feel ashamed to live in a country which is one of the largest state sponsors of terrorism, directly responsible for the infliction of violence on thousands, if not millions around the world.


I will follow up this post with another during the week on the latest regarding the BAe investigations.

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