Western audiences watching the repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia this year, take note: your governments helped to supply the weapons which are killing innocent people.
The murky world of international arms trading has many players, but the British government’s hands are dirtier than most. One of the big five exporters of major conventional weapons (the others are the US, Russia, Germany and France), Britain has a long history of supplying arms, or weapon components, to states of ill repute – including Indonesia, Israel and Saudi Arabia – and of turning a blind eye to the corruption and criminality that are part and parcel of the industry.
The arms trade is big business for the Global North, which since the Cold War has been pushing developing countries into ever-increasing spirals of debt and lining the pockets of corrupt dictators by ‘encouraging’ them (often with bribes) to buy arms.
An Oxfam study revealed that between 1990 and 2005, 23 African economies lost around $284 billion to armed conflict – money that could have been spent on health, education and infrastructure. Some 95 per cent of the arms and ammunition used in those conflicts came from abroad.
Ostensibly, Britain and other Western exporting countries have tight regulations to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands. But money talks, and rules are there to be broken – or ignored. This was seen spectacularly in 2006 when Saudi Arabia managed to cow the British government into halting an investigation into corruption in a 1980s Saudi/BAE Systems arms deal known, ironically, as ‘Al Yamamah’ (‘the Dove’ in Arabic).
Britain’s export licensing rules dictate that the government ‘will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression’. But this didn’t stop the government approving 70 export licences to Bahrain (including tear-gas canisters and crowd-control ammunition), or $700 million-worth of exports to Saudi Arabia last year.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (caat.org.uk) is now challenging the British government for failing to revoke arms exports to Saudi Arabia. They cite evidence that the Saudi authorities have used British-built armoured vehicles to put down demonstrations in neighbouring Bahrain, and plan to request a judicial review.
Some 25,000 delegates will rub shoulders – and arms – at the DSEi trade fair in London’s Docklands this month. Britain’s largest arms exhibition bills itself as a world of ‘infinite opportunities’. CAAT and other campaigning groups will gather outside to protest against the convention and demand an end to all opportunities to deal in death.