Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Opposing the murderous arms trade

Today, the Committees on Arms Export Controls issued a 173-page Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls report. The report came to the conclusion that "the Government must now take the initiative and set a deadline for NGOs and industry to bring forward draft proposals for consideration on the further extension of the trade controls on activities by UK persons anywhere in the world."

In short, based on concerns raised in February over arms exports to Israel, as well as the newly-raised possibility that "UK supplied weapons, ammunition, parts and components were used by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the recent military actions against the Tamil Tigers," the Committees have called for much tighter arms export controls. This is alongside commendation of the government for pursuing an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) with the suggestion that "a successful ATT should be clearly enforceable, have as wide a scope as is achievable, and underline the applicability of international human rights and humanitarian law."

Certainly, this report is to be welcomed. As the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) points out, "the arms trade severely undermines human rights, security and economic development at global, regional, national and local levels" and "government decisions are unduly influenced by arms companies." Thus, any call from a government body for tighter regulations so that, as BBC News puts it, "arms exports are not being used against civilians in war zones" is long overdue.

However, this report cannot be seen as more significant than it is. At this time, it is unclear exactly how far these recommendations will go in influencing government policy. Moreover, the report was hardly scathing in its criticism of the arms trade. It asks "that the Government report back to the Committees by the end of 2009 on how discussions with other EU Member States have progressed towards consensus on a revised EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports to be adopted as a Common Position," hardly a radical demand for change. CAAT explains fully why, beyond principle, a code of conduct or ATT is not enough to end the injustices fuelled by this multi-billion dollar industry;

CAAT supports the idea of an ATT in principle, but questions whether it will be effective, at least in so far as major conventional and high-technology equipment is concerned. The ATT could strengthen the hands of governments trying to prevent the circulation of small arms, and CAAT would warmly welcome this, but it is clear that the deals the companies find most lucrative, such as those to Saudi Arabia, Israel, India and Pakistan, would continue unabated.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) itself stresses that the proposed ATT is "not a disarmament treaty but an export control treaty" aimed at stopping weapons reaching "the hands of terrorists, insurgents and human rights abusers". The ATT is supported by the arms industry; unsurprisingly, since the FCO says it: "will be good for business, both manufacturing and export sales."

The FCO has told CAAT that the ATT will not prevent any UK sales. This was reinforced by the Defence Manufacturers Association’s DMA News, January 2006, which said the DMA believes "the eventual Treaty would not bring new obligations for UK industry." It seems that sales to FCO countries of concern, such as Saudi Arabia, would continue unabated.

As envisaged by the UK government, the ATT would not provide adequate constraints and could well serve simply to legitimise arms sales. CAAT is concerned that its support for the ATT allows the Government to the impression it is taking action, whilst it continues to support the arms companies in their deadly business.

There is no such thing as a responsible arms trade. The UK government must acknowledge that an ATT will be worthwhile only if it stops arms sales, from the UK as well as elsewhere, to areas of conflict and to human rights violators.

Clearly, then, although doused in strong rhetoric, both today's report and the push for an ATT amount to piecemeal measures. It is no good to simply hold a "full review" or to "assess more carefully the risk that UK arms exports might be used by those countries in the future in a way that breaches our licensing criteria," in the words of Labour MP Roger Berry, when the end result is that the arms trade continues unabated.

However, the recommendations offered in this report do present an opportunity. We should be under no illusions - the arms industry is one of several ways in which taxpayers' money is used to subsidise corporate profits (most notably in the US Pentagon system, though also in the UK and elsewhere) and there are powerful vested interests with huge resources to oppose all significant moves towards its abolition. But this should not put people off. With the publication of this report, the issue is in the news, and we have to ensure that it stays there.

The most significant reason why there is no public pressure on any large scale about this issue is because the general public is unaware of what is at stake. Stories such as this are quickly buried under an avalanche of militaristic and nationalistic editorials espousing the neccesity of "defence" and "national interest" to justify war, aggression, and an arms industry growing fat off global turmoil. We need to ensure that that does not happen this time. We need to keep the story alive, to keep people informed, and to get them angry about what is happening in their name and with their money.

If we do not, then all we can do is watch liberals pat themselves on the back for "regulating" the problem whilst the worst injustices of this immoral trade continue to spread across the globe.