By Nicola Pratt
This week, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK-based group with a lively branch in Norwich, will be calling on the UK Department for Trade and Industry to stop using British taxpayers' money to help private companies sell arms, as part of its 'Stop' week (14-21 June). In the current economic downturn, it may seem unrealistic to call for an end to official support for a multi-million pound UK industry, which employs over 300,000 people. Between 2003 and 2008, the UK was the second biggest exporter of arms in the world. Some people may ask, isn't it better that countries buy their weapons from the UK rather than our competitors, such as the US, Russia and France? The government, which underwrites arms sales made between British companies and foreign governments, has rules against providing licenses to sell arms to countries where they may be used for internal repression, to increase regional instability or cause human rights violations. Nevertheless, in the first nine months of 2008, the government licensed arms exports to Israel worth over £27 million. It is difficult to believe that none of this equipment was used by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, where over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, a third of whom were women and children, and 4,247 homes were destroyed.
Even if the government was to follow its own rules on arms sales, in today's world, it is increasingly difficult to know the destination of all arms sales or to guarantee that they are not being used against civilians. Globalized production means that the UK sells parts to other countries, such as the US, to include in assembling weapons which are sold on to other countries. Meanwhile, wars are increasingly fought in civilian-populated areas, rather than between two national armies on the 'battlefront'.
What is equally worrying is that arms sales may increase the chances of conflicts escalating. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of weapons being exported to the Middle East has risen by more than 33% overall in the past four years. During 2004-2008, 34 per cent of all arms sales to the Middle East went to the small Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates, while Israel received 22 per cent and Egypt 14 per cent. The UAE and other Gulf countries have long been significant importers of western-made weaponry. High oil prices until last summer helped to fuel expenditure on arms imports amongst the UAE and other Gulf states. The other main driver is the previous US administration's desire to support its allies in the Gulf against Iran. Indeed, the UAE and other Arab Gulf states have been historically concerned about the possible threat from their large Iranian neighbour across the Persian Gulf and these concerns have risen since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, resulting in a destabilization of the region's balance of power. Pieter Wezeman, a SIPRI, researcher commented, "While we are a long way from the levels [of imports] reached in the early to mid-1980s, this is still a worrying trend in a region beset by multiple sources of potential conflict and limited intergovernmental trust and transparency". Large arms imports to the Gulf are more likely to be aggravating the security situation, rather than lessening tensions. It is possible that Iran's development of nuclear technology is spurred on by the fact that it is surrounded by countries either armed or occupied by the US and its allies (the Arab Gulf states, Iraq and Afghanistan).
As taxpayers whose money helps to support the UK arms industry, we have an ethical obligation to hold our elected officials to account over arms exports and to prevent the global insecurity that our government helps to create.
Many thanks to Christine Wilson for her help with this article.