The UK Arms Trade: the exchange of morals for money
As of September 2014, there were 10 official ongoing wars and other violent conflicts involving 64 countries and 576 militia groups globally, many of which were lengthy. The most prominent example of Syria began as early as 2011, and there still isn’t a real solution in sight. Meanwhile, new conflicts seem about to erupt, with the UN likening the situation in South Sudan to that of Rwanda prior to the genocide. At the same time, the UK is the biggest European arms exporter and globally only surpassed by the US. It does not take a pacifist to question the impact of this and on what moral grounds a growing arms trade could possibly be excused.
The government is epitomizing blatant hypocrisy. On the one hand, they are claiming to be doing all they possibly can to diplomatically end violent conflicts. On the other hand, they are supplying the means both to instigate and maintain precisely those conflicts they are professing to try to end. Most recently, the hypocrisy has been exemplified in Yemen, where British cluster bombs were used by Saudi Arabia. The defence secretary Michael Fallon has stood by Saudi Arabia and their strong arms trade relation. The UK government thus seems to be professing a moral high-ground whilst ruthlessly exploiting and prolonging the suffering of others out of a purely capitalist self-interest.
Clearly this led to outrage, both amongst MPs and campaign groups, as even the US has demonstrated to us all that it is possible to match actions with words through their recent ban on arms to the Saudis. Nonetheless, it is important to consider why governments continually revert to the arms trade, as seen in Yemen. Most obvious is the involvement of money: the government has licensed over 3.3billion pounds since the bombing began in 2015. Currently, the British government relies on the arms trade for income, economic stability, job provision, security and intelligence purposes. Evidently, it would not be an easy thing to give up. However, solving the Yemen crisis will arguably pose an equally challenging problem.
The moral premises for investing in arms companies is equally questionable, as one can view it as support for an industry which provides means for murder, warfare and terror. Thus it comes as a shock to find out that local authorities, universities and even charities are increasingly investing their money in precisely this sector. Charities such as Comic Relief, Macmillan Cancer Report and Marie Curie have been implicated. Even our own University of Glasgow has invested half a million pounds into the arms sector. The reasons to invest are clear: there is a lot of money in the arms trade and investments are seen as safe- there will, after all, always be conflicts to fuel with weapons.
So what can be done? The law of capitalism seems impossible to overcome. Once you have sold the arms, you cannot control when and for what purposes they will be used. The British cluster bombs were provided to Saudi Arabia as of 1985, making the 2008 Ottawa convention concerning cluster bombs inapplicable. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Fallon maintain they are not targeting civilians, despite the documentation of hospitals, schools and mosques being hit. The 2014 Arms Trade Treaty seems to signal a small step forward, as it prohibits arms deals where reasonable knowledge can be assumed of their use in violation of international humanitarian law. Yet this, of course, is dependent on voluntary signing.
The situation seems bleak. Yet other countries are finding ways to move forward, especially compared to the UK. In Yemen, the US was not the first to ban trade, as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden tightened their export regulations even earlier. Clearly, the UK government could do more.
Perhaps the more important question to ask, however, is what can we do. After all, it is our money, whether through taxes, support of charities or university fees, that is being used. Pressure can be useful. In 2001 the Church of England chose to stop investing after a successful campaign focusing on their involvement in the arms trade. Why not start local? The Amnesty International society is launching a campaign to end the university’s investment in the arms trade.
It perhaps seems too ambitious to call for a complete end to the arms trade, but that should not serve as an excuse for doing nothing. Limiting or restricting the UK’s arms trade would undeniably come at a high price. Yet I believe it is nothing compared to the suffering that could be avoided for countless people across the world.