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No licence to kill

The arms trade is big business. Anna Bluston investigates the arms companies the government keep

At the time of writing, the British government has spent £3 billion on the war on Iraq. The world continues to spend more on arms than it spends on anything else, running at US $800 billion annually.

The fact that guns kill people is to state the bloody obvious. Opponents of the arms trade would have us believe that it is a major contributory factor to conflicts around the world. Those involved in the trade argue that they are providing us with necessary defences against those trying to destroy us, and that arms sales are essential to foster good relations and also create more jobs at home. As the 17th. century philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, "Covenants without the sword are mere words", meaning laws without ‘armed bodies of men’ to enforce them mean nothing.

However, Tim Webb, (The Armour-Plated Ostrich, 1998) highlights the hidden costs of Britain’s addiction to the arms business. He concludes that weapons manufacture has severely weakened our economy, and is not the wealth-creating industry and provider of jobs that its advocates would have us believe.

The slogan of BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace)¸ the world’s largest arms producer, is: ‘Innovating for a Safer World’. Its website proudly argues that it is a ‘company……continuing to play our part in making the world a safer place’, claiming they apply ‘innovative thinking and intelligent systems to make the world a safer place and to protect those who protect us.’ It says that its vision is ‘to be the leading systems company, innovating for a safer world.’ What is meant by a ‘systems company’ is unclear. There is also much mention of ‘new innovative approaches to the provision of defence capability’, but no mention of the word ‘weapons’ could be found on the website.

People and Planet is the largest student network in Britain campaigning to alleviate world poverty, defend human rights, and protect the environment. There are groups at over 70% of the UK’s universities. I was the head of the one at Kent University from 2001-2002. One of its campaigns is against the arms trade. It wants to ‘Kick the arms dealers off campus’ and argues that ‘The arms trade fuels wars, destroys lives and increases poverty.’ Statistics produced by the campaign say that ‘there are more than 500 million small weapons around the world: one for about every 12 people. In the last decade 49 conflicts have been waged around the world. Six million people have been killed, 90% of them civilians. Half the world's governments spend more on the military than on health care. Just 1% of global annual military spending could educate every child on earth over the next decade.’

People and Planet says that BAE has consistently attracted criticism for its sale of military equipment to oppressive regimes and dictatorships with shocking human rights records. It highlights facts such as that BAE supplied Hawk Ground Attack aircraft to the Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia. Eye witness accounts have spoken of these aircraft attacking civilians in then illegally-occupied East Timor.

However, this is not illegal, because in late 2001, the US government lifted restrictions on the provision of police training and equipment, military spare parts and 'non-lethal' military articles to the Indonesian armed forces, despite their continued involvement in grave human rights violations. Perhaps most shockingly, P&P claims that in 1995 a BAE salesman offered to supply undercover reporters with electroshock weapons. He also claimed that 8,000 electroshock batons had been supplied to Saudi Arabia where systematic torture, including the use of electroshock weapons, has been described by victims of the authorities. The sale of torture weapons, which you’d think would be illegal, is increasing worldwide, according to an Amnesty report published in February 2001.

So seemingly BAE is not doing anything illegal. But it is certainly not very moral, and doesn’t really care, a fact highlighted by Don McClen, a former Public Relations Director of BAE Systems, who admitted that ‘In this game sometimes you have to leave your conscience at the door.’

Comparing the People and Planet and BAE websites is revealing. The former offers facts and statistics, although it does not say where it obtained its ‘facts’. The BAE site discusses ‘systems’, ‘technologies’ and ‘innovative approaches’. It no longer lists its graduate recruitment events in UK universities, as it was giving the protesters information as to where to target them. It seems to the casual observer that BAE has something to hide beneath their techno-babble. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is working for the reduction and ultimate abolition of the international arms trade, together with progressive demilitarisation within arms-producing countries. It certainly believes that abolishing the arms trade would end conflict, and many share this view. CAAT's new campaign, Fanning the Flames, aims to build agreement around the idea that we can make a real difference in the world by stopping the promotion of arms, particularly to countries engaged in conflict.

One argument is that, even if this thesis holds that defence is necessary against those threatening us such as “terrorists” and rogue states, the law needs to be drastically tightened so that we at least know where our weapons are going, and to ensure that the UK does not fund oppressive regimes or supply anyone with torture weapons. But the new Export Control Act 2002, the aim of which is precisely to take these precautions, has enormous loopholes. UK gun-runners will still be able to broker sales of equipment unhindered so long as they leave the UK to conduct their business. Checks are still not made to ensure arms stay in the countries to which they are sent. Amnesty International and Oxfam also point out that the government has admitted it is still unable to track arms exported from Britain. Arms deals brokered in Britain do not require a licence if the weapons are shipped from a third country.

Amnesty International has joined with Oxfam to campaign for these loopholes to be filled, and points out that the act will not fully regulate activities of UK arms brokers operating offshore, or control the arms shippers who deliver weapons into human rights crises zones around the globe. It points out the ridiculous situation that a licence is needed to marry, drive, fish, fly, and even run a raffle in the UK, but not to broker arms. If weapons deals are arranged without the guns ever touching UK soil, then all regulations are side-stepped. A new arms export bill has been introduced, but there are significant loopholes in it, which Amnesty and Oxfam along with others are campaigning to close.

Amnesty International, in its issue of The Terror Trade Times, argues that 'The G8’s uncontrolled trade in arms and military aid undermines fundamental human rights and sustainable development.' It examines ways in which military and security exports from seven of the G8 countries are contributing to human rights abuses and undermining the prospects for social and economic development around the world It argues that the US’s ‘War on Terrorism’, which now seemingly includes Iraq, does not accompany any reduction in existing US military aid to countries such as Israel (US$2.04 billion), Egypt (US$1.3 billion), Jordan, Tunisia and Colombia. Nor have military sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey seen any decline. The ridiculous hypocrisy of governments is also too obvious. Though the war in Iraq arguably seems to have had a reasonably successful conclusion, the main controversy surrounding the morality of the invasion seemed to be that there were many varied and vague reasons, one of which was Iraq possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction, which at the time of writing have yet to be uncovered. There are many jokes on this subject, of which one is: Q: How do we know Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? A: We kept the receipt.

Seven years ago the Scott Report exposed the ‘arms to Iraq’ scandal. Lord Scott disclosed how British arms had reached Iraq through third countries - particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia - as a result of the failure to monitor ‘end-user certificates’. Many question the ethics of bombing a country for possessing weapons that we sold them in the first place, but then this is true of many regimes that previously had Western (mainly US) backing but now are seen as a threat: notably Afghanistan. Amnesty International says that according to its officials, the CIA gave over US$2 billion in light weapons to Mujahideen groups in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet invasion between 1979 and 1989.

There is then a strong argument that if regimes such as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and ‘terrorist’ groups like Al-Qaeda had not been sold the weapons in the first place, we (the West) would not later need to fight wars against them when their brutality was no longer turned against our enemies and stopped being in our interest.

So should there be a ban on advertising and sponsorship from arms companies? The UK has recently banned tobacco advertising and sponsorship from tobacco companies is frowned upon, yet 72% of BAE’s production is military, even if they do also build bridges and like to say that they make the world a safer place.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): as long ago as June 1996 stated in a parliamentary debate that: ‘The Government deplore the use of torture and would never through their general export services knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes, nor grant an export licence from this country for licensable goods which were to be used for torture.’

However, the trade in torture weapons, including high-tech electro-shock weapons, leg irons, serrated thumb cuffs, and stun belts prisoners are forced to wear, is increasing worldwide. According to Amnesty, the number of countries producing electro-shock equipment has grown from around 30 in the 1980s to more than 130 now. Some batons, which it calls the ‘favoured tool of the modern torturer’, even bear the ‘EC’ standard marking approved by the European Union.

There needs to be far greater regulation of who weapons are sold to and of what type, in practice rather than just empty rhetoric. So closing the loopholes in the export bill is a crucial step. Wars and weapons are undesirable, and companies need to have clear ethical guidelines as to who they trade with. The argument that no weapons equals no more wars seems to be a rather simplistic, idealistic aim. However, regulating the arms trade would be an important first step.

July 2003