The arms trade is a highly controversial issue that is attacked from many angles. The most voiced criticism is that the UK trades in arms with countries that are politically unstable, and potentially dangerous. Another case where it could be argued capitalist economics are trumping morality.Reports from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills show that the UK granted companies £215 million worth of export licences for the sale of ‘controlled products’ such as tear gas, riot gear and ammunition in Libya in September 2010. It is likely that such military equipment was used by the Gaddafi regime during the Arab Spring to mute citizens protesting for democracy, this may have also been the case in other struggling countries such as Egypt and Bahrain. Cornel Gaddafi died in the hands of rebel forces late last month.
It seems the UK government have got their wires crossed (once again). In fact, all Western, democratised countries have. It is a new level of hypocrisy to on one hand promote the democratic principles of a liberal state whereby the right to protest and freedom of speech are crucial elements, and on the other to supply oppressive regimes with the means to stop such activity, or more accurately – shoot it dead.
It is clear not all members of the government believe such actions are permissible. Bath MP Don Foster said when asked for his views on the issue:
“The UK’s attitude is far too gung-ho about it… I seriously think we should be making much more of a stand in terms of the sale and export of arms it just goes against everything I think is so important.”
Defence Secretary Liam Fox takes a somewhat different approach. At the end of September, he attended the Defence System and Equipment International Exhibition (DSEIE), an arms fair to promote the economic benefits of trading in military equipment.
Dr Fox has recently resigned from his position after breaking the ministerial code by taking friend Adam Werritty (who has strong links with the ‘defence’ industry) on over 18 business trips abroad.
On the day, hundreds of people gathered around Whitehall to protest against the advocation of selling weapons to such fragile states; a demonstration which Green MP Caroline Lucas attended.
In a letter to Vince Cable (Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills) Lucas expressed her numerous concerns about such a fair taking place in London. She stated that 14 authoritarian regimes that are known to have a poor civic relations record were in attendance, five of which have been named by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as the worst human rights offenders. Up to five stalls were promoting munitions deemed illegal by the DSEIE including the Defence Export Promotion Organization of Pakistan who were actively promoting cluster bombs. Beechwood Equipment were advertising products for sale including oversized leg cuffs, waist chains, and lead chains for restraint purposes; also prohibited. Lucas wrote:
“The Secretary of State for Defence boasts that the UK’s export licensing regime is already the toughest in the world… my experiences suggest there is a vast gulf between the rules that exist and British enforcement. I therefore call on you to provide an immediate guarantee that no illegal activity will be permitted to take place at future arms fairs in Britain.”
Various pressure groups are also campaigning for change in the way Britain places itself within the global arms trade. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) who have been active since 1974 have recently launched a fresh initiative relating to universities. The group will be ‘supporting students, staff and academics to ban BAE and other arms companies from all aspects of university life’. BAE are one of the largest producers of arms in the UK selling arms to countries acknowledged to have a poor human rights record, and are a familiar face at careers fairs across universities, including Bath. BAE have come up against several allegations over the years regarding bribery and ‘accounting irregularities’ which they pleaded guilty to in 2010.
The company ‘specifically target engineering and science students whose skills are keenly sought by the arms industry but are in high demand in other sectors such as renewable energy technology’ according to CAAT.
The arms argument always falls back to ‘but it’s good for the economy’. It may be the case that the UK economy benefits from the trade of arms, but this needs to be balanced against the cost of sending in our troops to clear up the mess (in-part) brought about by this industry, and the successive loss of military personnel in such conflicts. Moreover, further thought needs to be given to the civilian casualties caused by the regimes the UK is selling to.
We are now thinking in a globalised way when it comes to economic gain, so isn’t it about time we extended this further and globalised our morals too?