Comment: Promoting arms exports is sheer madness

Ann Feltham: Instead of fuelling insecurity and abuse around the globe, this money would be better spent on tackling real threats to security
Ann Feltham: Instead of fuelling insecurity and abuse around the globe, this money would be better spent on tackling real threats to security

By Ann Feltham

In 1986, the UK government hosts a five-strong delegation from Saddam Hussein's Iraq at the British Army Equipment Exhibition.

In 2009, the UK government welcomes buyers from Muammar Gaddafi's Libya to London's DSEi arms fair.

In September 2013, the UK government's 67 invitees to this week's Defence & Security Equipment international (DSEi ) are announced. Fourteen of the governments on the list are "authoritarian regimes" as defined by the Economist Intelligence Unit - nine are identified by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as countries giving rise to the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns.


It is not just the weaponry itself that goes to a repressive regime; it is also the "stamp of approval", of international respectability, that goes with it. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia are ranked at 161, 162 and 163 respectively out of 167 in the Economist's Democracy Index. Other invitees include Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. What message do these governments, and their peoples, hear from the UK? Loudly and clearly, they are being told that human rights are of little importance if arms sales are involved.

Saddam and Gaddafi were known for abusing human rights yet this was overlooked when weapons' sales were in the offing. The people of both Iraq and Libya suffered from years of repression at the hand of those being courted by UK governments. Then they were subject to western intervention. Now both countries are in chaos, yet the UK government's response is to plug more weapons sales. It's madness.

Back in 1986, when Saddam's men were welcomed to the arms fair, all the exhibitors were from the UK. The arms industry then was not the global one it is today. Now the 1,400 exhibitors from dozens of countries include the Russian arms suppliers to Syria's President Assad, companies selling the tear-gas used in Turkey, Brazil and Bahrain, and Israeli companies displaying "battle-tested" weapons.

The DSEi arms fair facilitates arms sales from anywhere to anywhere. If the deals made do not involve equipment exported from the UK, the UK government has no control over them - madness compounded.

The only positive thing to be said about the arms fairs past and present is that they highlight government support for this dangerous industry. Since 1966, the UK government has had an arms export promotion agency. It has had various names, but is now the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO). Its 150 civil servants work day-to-day promoting military and security equipment sales around the world. They help arrange the high-profile arms sales visits by prime ministers and defence secretaries - trips to authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

UKTI DSO has a "priority list" of countries for arms sales. The Commons' committees on arms export controls (CAEC) have pointed out that this list includes Libya and Saudi Arabia, countries also on the FCO list as posing "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns". CAEC felt their inclusion in both lists to be "fundamentally anomalous".  Many would consider it total madness.

UKTI DSO works on behalf of private arms companies. It promotes weapons sales to unstable and repressive regimes, with little regard for the impact of such sales. Yet its work is paid for by the UK taxpayer.

Reflecting the huge and disproportionate support given to arms companies, UKTI employs more civil servants to sell military and security equipment than it does to support every other industry sector combined.

There is no economic justification for such support: arms sales account for just 1.2 % of UK exports and sustain just 0.2% of the national labour force. As the international economy editor of the Financial Times said in August 2010: "You can have as many arms export jobs as you are prepared to waste public money subsidising."

Instead of fuelling insecurity and abuse around the globe, this money would be better spent on tackling real threats to security, such as climate change: a move that would also create new jobs and boost the economy. There is a shortage of engineers. The many currently working in the arms industry could, for example, tackle climate change instead. This would be a step towards sanity.

Completely by chance, there is a Commons debate on UKTI scheduled this Thursday. UKTI DSO plays the leading role for the government in the DSEi arms fair. It is an opportunity for MPs to demand an end to all UK promotion of, and support for, arms exports to authoritarian regimes. This would definitely be progress on the way to a saner world.

Ann Feltham is the parliamentary co-ordinator of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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