Britain’s Arms Trade

Egyptians demonstrate for Libya, a country where British arms may be used against civilians by the regime.

David Cameron’s recent visit to Egypt amid the protests, which are still sweeping the region, has raised some very pressing questions as well as provoking anger and criticism. His trip involved promoting democracy on the one hand, and Britain’s arms trade on the other, quite separate, hand. Given that these protests for democracy are, particularly in the case of Libya, being suppressed by a regime which is using crowd control ammunition purchased from other countries, how could Cameron’s decision to take representatives from eight leading defence firms with him be seen as either humane or ethical?

On the surface the trip appears to be positive. As the first world leader to set foot in Egypt after the unrest began, Cameron’s visit was a sign of Britain’s support for democracy. Cameron himself was quoted as saying he wants to see Britain helping to create the “building blocks of democracy” in the Middle East. Certainly this is a statement with which we would all agree. However, it soon became apparent that this was little more than a publicity stunt to try and convince the world that Britain is concerned for the democratic and human rights of the people in the Middle East. This six hour trip was in fact only a fleeting pit-stop on the way to a far more controversial destination.

The original purpose of the trip before the protests broke out was to cement ties with countries in the Gulf and promote trade, particularly of arms. Unperturbed by the civil unrest in the Middle Eastern countries, Cameron has gone on to conduct a three day tour of undemocratic Gulf states with his original two purposes in mind. Although when questioned about his entourage on the trip, Mr Cameron insisted he had with him a range of business people, including experts on infrastructure and arts and culture. However, he was forced to concede that there were also defence manufacturers present. Furthermore, Defence Minister Gerald Howarth and fifty British companies were present at an arms export show in the United Arab Emirates, a show that was also attended by several Libyan generals. There can be little doubt left that Britain’s interests lie with the promotion of our arms trade. If time spent per activity can be an indication of how highly the British government values the fight for democracy versus our arms trade, the latter is clearly the winner by a good 66 hours, and that’s just counting the three day tour, never mind the time put into the export show.

Admittedly the relationship we have with Kuwait is not so reproachable considering the circumstances. Since 2003, Britain has approved 1,155 arms export licenses, worth a total of £102.3 million, with Kuwait. The country is a key military ally in the Middle East as it sits right on the border with Iraq. It hosted American and British soldiers during the hunt for Saddam Hussein and twelve years earlier was the site of much destruction as the US army ousted the Iraqi forces which had been present for a year. As Cameron has already pointed out, Britain has spent both money and lives defending Kuwait. We have also been able to use it for our own military advantage. In light of this, we do perhaps owe them aid in building up a defence which they are unable to provide for themselves.

That said, a quick glance over Britain’s more recent record of arms deals provides some rather unappetising food-for-thought. Despite Downing Street’s claims that Britain has one of the toughest arms export regimes in the world, we have made arms sales to Tripoli of crowd control ammunition (including rubber bullets), sniper rifles and tear gas. This is a sickening thought, considering the violent repression of protesters which is currently being implemented in Libya. Amid much embarrassment the British government has since revoked the arms export licenses to both Libya and Bahrain due to the repression, which Mr Cameron has condemned as “completely appalling and unacceptable”.

The question remains, what were those licenses doing in force in the first place, when it was clear that there was unrest in both of those countries? The unsettling answer is that the granting of licenses is dependent only on the promises of the country involved not to use those arms for the repression of their own people. Bahrain and Libya had both made that promise, promises which were easily broken. Considering the ease with which these promises were broken, coupled with the fact that the dealer has no control over the arms once they are in the recipient country, is it responsible to be dealing with these nations at all?

Easy though it may seem to simply condemn Cameron and the government for their recent actions, there is logic behind the apparent madness. It is no secret that military equipment ranks as one of the most successful exports of the UK and, as such, provides a large income. There is a reason David Cameron declared that the arms trade would be made a priority in his foreign policy, and that reason is economic. The implications lie uncomfortably close to home, for students as well as the rest of the population. Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, two major graduate employers, were among the eight companies accompanying Mr Cameron on his trip. As Prime Minister, it is Cameron’s duty to save the British people during the economic hardships. As a human being, it is his duty to save the people of the Middle East by not providing the weapons which could lead to their destruction. Can he plausibly make the two go hand in hand?

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