Getting Serious about the Arms Trade

The arms trade fuels the world’s wars.

Governments’ support for this death-dealing trade is something of a mystery for decent people round the world. So Vincent Cable’s very recent public defense of the trade is of more than local interest.

Why, then, do governments of the West support the arms trade with such vigour. Some flickering glimmers of light were shone on this question in relation to the UK government by an encounter between Dr. Vincent Cable, Member of Parliament for Twickenham and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (UKTI) and his constituents. UKTI is the department which is charged with supporting UK exports and it makes a huge contribution to the export of UK arms to a total of 52 states round the globe. Dr Cable, a popular MP, had been asked by his constituents to attend a public meeting, in Richmond, Surrey, on 29 November, to explain his massive support for this trade.

Cable’s ensuing defence of his and the government’s position can only be described as bizarre.

When the horrendous consequences of the arms trade in death and suffering were pointed out to him he declared: ‘If we withdrew from selling arms to other countries they would buy them from someone else.’ I know of no case where a judge, when adjudicating on, for example, the case of someone who had murdered his wife, exonerating him on the basis of his plea that if he had not committed the crime then someone else would have. It may be true, of course. But it is not, in a court of law, considered a sufficient justification. Why then does the government, on such a basis, permit itself to commit acts on a massive scale which, if committed by a citizen on a much smaller scale, would rightly be considered criminal? Perhaps Dr Cable’s answers to some other queries will help to elucidate the matter.

When asked to explain why the Prime Minister had recently escorted a coterie of arms manufacturers and dealers to Saudi Arabia to pimp their wares, he said that every country had a right to defend itself and Saudi Arabia was facing a threat from Iran. Iran, in fact, has not invaded another country for two hundred years. During that time, the UK has invaded Afghanistan twice during the 19th century in the First and Second Afghan Wars and again with the US in the 21st century. In fact, the UK appears willing to invade and destroy other sovereign states merely to show solidarity with their ‘special relationship’ fellow belligerents, the US. Iraq is an obvious case in point — and now threats are going out to Iran itself.

Despite the beating of the war drums and the axis-of-evil paranoia in relation to Iran, the only serious threat to the Saudi Arabian regime is from its own citizens when the Arab Spring crosses the Red Sea. It is innocent civilians who will be blown apart and buried under demolished buildings from the attacks of government-imported fighter jets as is currently the case in Syria. When this was pointed out to Dr Cable there was no sign that it registered and so we moved on.

56% of UKTI’s staff dedicated to exports work exclusively on behalf of the arms industry. (( ‘Briefing: Private Gain, Public Pain’, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).)) The other 44% work for all the other export industries put together. Cable justified this by saying “95% of the pressure I get is from people clamouring for more effort on arms sales”. What a weird justification. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him?! It is part of his job to keep the Merchants of Death at bay. The reason that 95% of lobbying is done by the arms trade is because they can afford to pay an army of lobbyists since they make such vast profits for the sale of their killing machines.

He further claimed that this inordinate imbalance was justified because it promoted exports. Only 1.5% of UK exports are in arms. (( ‘Briefing: Private Gain, Public Pain’, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).)) The other 98.5% of exports are supported by 44% of Cable’s export staff. At this stage the audience were sitting stunned and open-mouthed in disbelief. But, moving on, was there any other justification for government support of the arms trade?

Well, we need the arms trade because it creates jobs was another Ministry of Defense classic regurgitated by Cable. Jobs for killing. As though these highly skilled people could not be employed in life enhancing activities, for example, in the under-supported renewable energy industry.

But, in any case, our worries are totally misplaced, we were assured. Her Majesty’s Government has a very rigorous system of arms export control to prevent arms getting into the hands of repressive regimes, Dr Cable promised his audience; an audience which was well aware that the UK government has, in recent years, cleared the sale of arms to Algeria, Bahrain (currently using UK supplied equipment against its own people), Libya, Israel, and Russia. Moreover, we sold vast quantities of arms to Gaddafi and Mubarak. So much for stringent controls.

It is a curious fact that the arms trade which fuels the world’s wars is dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. As always, in political circles, words take on a different meaning from common parlance. The arms trade which makes modern war possible is carried out by the members of the ‘security’ council. An activity which, if carried out by citizens, is called gun-running is, when carried out by politicians, called ‘supporting the defence industry.’

By far the greatest disseminator of arms round the world is the UK’s ‘special relationship’ ally the US. In 2011 overseas weapons sales by this ally totalled $66. billion dollars; more than three quarters of the global arms market, a threefold increase from the previous year and the highest ever. Saudi Arabia was also a primary target for US arms sales. Agreements included the purchase of 84 advanced F-15 fighters and dozens of Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.

Each year, around $45-60 billion worth of arms sales are agreed. Most of these sales (something like 75%) are to developing countries.

The arms trade is a major cause of suffering in the world, and Dr Cable’s sorry performance did not persuade his audience otherwise.

As General Eisenhower said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Jim McCluskey is the author of The Nuclear Threat. Read other articles by Jim.