Recent data has revealed that 2018 was the ‘best year ever’ for arms exports from the UK. This comes at a time when the world is in the midst of a climate crisis, one billion children live in poverty, and rights and freedoms are being eroded all over the world.
So, is it right that the UK focuses more on personal profit than helping those who really need it?
I quickly wish to make a distinction in the fairly murky and broad category of ‘Defence’. I believe that it is acceptable that we should be able to sell arms, such as counter-IED equipment, which have a positive impact on regions intimidated by violence. However, it is wrong to say that we should encourage the sale of weapons such as the Raytheon’s Paveway laser-guided bomb, which is specifically engineered for complete destruction of anything in its path.
A seemingly insignificant 1.5 per cent of the UK’s total exports come from arms, which in round figures amounts to a total of £14bn in 2018 — a sum that has been growing steadily since the 1990s. Following the war on terror and the growing economies of the Middle East, a highly profitable market emerged for British weaponry. In fact, 80 per cent of our arms go to the Middle East, including the UAE, Qatar, Israel and Saudi Arabia. These regimes do not have the cleanest human rights records. Qatar allegedly seizes workers’ passports to build their stadiums for the World Cup; Israel regularly attacks Palestinian protestors, many of whom are unarmed; and Saudi Arabia has bombed schools and hospitals in Yemen. Is it really right that our country, one based on principle, should be assisting others, even if indirectly, in carrying out human rights’ violations?
A spokesperson from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) stated that this information:
‘Exposed the rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy. The Government claims to stand for human rights and democracy, but it is arming and supporting repressive regimes and dictatorships’.
It is not that people haven’t tried to stop these sales. The Court of Appeal made the verdict that the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia was in fact unlawful; however, this ruling has so far been ignored and the sales continue. The actions of Government are not surprising as many members have personal stakes in these arms companies. A hefty £800,000 alone is invested into BAE systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer, by the parliamentary pension fund. But this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Many MPs have been known to invest in these companies and are regularly lobbied by them, such as Vince Cable when he attended a dinner with 40 other MPs in 2015 which was hosted by BAE, Raytheon and Cobham.
For an example of what the arms sale looks like, we have the Yemeni conflict. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in an ongoing mission in the region which is made up mostly of air strikes. Over 8000 civilians have been killed in the conflict, a quarter of whom are women and children. Saudi Arabia regularly uses UK- and US-built bombs to attack targets such as schools and hospitals. In August 2018 a bomb produced by Lockheed Martin was used to destroy a school bus; 40 children were killed and a further 79 were injured. To have such close ties with a nation which ruthlessly destroys those most vulnerable is completely unacceptable and should be considered an utter disgrace.
The question then arises: what to do with the 300,000 people employed by the defence industry in the UK? As technology is such a key part of weaponry at present, many of the skills developed from manufacturing weapons could easily be transferred to transport, energy, or other technological firms. By switching these people to other jobs, the UK could become a leader in green energy. By enlisting those working on the UK’s nuclear programme, Trident, to work instead on building nuclear power plants, the UK could become the first country to use no fossil fuels in its energy production. Or, those who currently work designing tanks, aircraft and warships could use their expertise to assist in building new high-speed railway lines or upgrading the entire network. By focussing on peace over profit the UK can become a far better place.
Although in a post-Brexit world the UK needs to assert itself as a global player and trade with countries outside the EU, the answer does not lie in the sale of arms. If we wish to have world peace, the answer is not to arm it to the teeth. The UK’s active participation in arms’ sales with questionable countries is not only a national disgrace, but a personal tragedy. In the words of Ban Ki-Moon, the former UN Secretary General:
‘The World is over-armed and peace is under-funded’.