Symon Hill

Arms trading is Britain's new slave trade

By Symon Hill
April 19, 2007

Two hundred years after the abolition of the slave trade, Britain is again at the forefront of a trade in human lives. Once again powerful companies insist that this trade benefits the British public. And the government is prepared to put the greed of the wealthy ahead of humanity or public interest.

The UK is the world's second biggest arms exporter, yet public opposition to the arms trade is growing rapidly. BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms company, is facing a stream of scandals and more and more people are insisting that BAE should not get away with calling the shots. This issue is becoming the focus of the campaign against the role of the arms trade in today's Britain. This will reach a crucial moment at BAE's AGM on 9 May 2007.

BAE has always been unpopular, but criticism reached boiling point in December 2006. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had been investigating allegations that BAE was engaged in mulitmillion pound corruption, bribing Saudi princes with luxury cars, hotels and prostitutes. Last autumn, the SFO sought access to Swiss bank accounts and the media reported that they were close to a breakthrough. BAE's bosses flew into alarm, seeing their privileges and profits under threat.

It all changed when Attorney General Peter Goldsmith announced that the investigation had been dropped. The next day Tony Blair defended the decision, saying the inquiry was harming UK-Saudi relations. He did not mention the Saudi regime's record of torture, tyranny, human rights violations and persecution of religious minorities. Nor did he refer to the power that BAE has over the UK Government.

BAE is not simply one more unethical multinational. Some would say that it is in the premier league of powerful businesses in the UK. But this is not really true. BAE is the premier league.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described how BAE's bosses “appeared to have the key to the garden door at Number 10”. He never saw Blair take any decision to their disadvantage. Although only 0.2% of UK jobs depend on arms exports, the arms industry is subsidised with over £850 million of taxpayers' money every year. You may well ask why this is. The answer goes to the core of the real reason behind the curtailing of the corruption inquiry.

Through both public practices and private maneuverings arms companies have crept further and further into the heart of British Government. DESO (Defence Export Services Organisation) is a arms marketing agency run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It gives private arms traders unparalleled access to ministers. It has now been reported that DESO boss Alan Garwood will be returning to his old company BAE after leaving the MoD's employment.

This is a blatant example of the ‘revolving door’ that allows a steady stream of ministers and civil servants to move to senior roles in the arms industry. It came as no surprise when the Defence Secretary admitted that BAE's chief lobbyist had been issued with an MoD security pass. These incestuous relationships have made it normal to put arms dealers' wishes ahead of public interest or the rule of law.

Such undemocratic influence would be frightening on the part of any business, but no industry causes as much damage to the world as the arms trade. Some argue that the arms trade would be acceptable if it were better regulated. A similar argument was made about the slave trade in 1788 when a bill passed Parliament to regulate slave ships. Whilst regulations may help in the short term, the arms trade is not a legitimate business that is being abused. It is an industry whose very purpose is to profit from death and poverty.

Arms companies keep despots in power and fuel war by providing constant streams of weapons. Bribery leads to countries buying weapons that they know they will never use. Far from being a victimless crime as some suggest, this is a major cause of poverty. Every pound spent on rockets and rifles is a pound less for vaccines and school books.

If we look at the cycles of suffering in the world today, we can see that they swirl around a centre that consists of the international arms trade.

In the face of such power it would be easy to give up. Yet at the core of the Gospel is the belief that change is possible: changes in people and changes in power. Following Jesus' example, radical Christians have for centuries confronted the dominant powers of the world. Time and again their belief in change has been proved right. They have remembered that Christ calls us not only to see visions but to live them.

Jesus tells us to be “innocent as doves” but also “wise as serpents”. Our practical action must be focused if we are effectively to transform society. Today, those of us who live in the UK can have a huge impact on the world by ending our country's role in the arms trade. The most effective way to do this is to break the foul relationship between arms companies and elected Government. There are more signs of hope than you might think.

By curtailing the corruption investigation, Blair and Goldsmith have put the influence of arms companies on display for all to see. The Corner House and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) are jointly launching a judicial review of the legality of their decision. Journalists continue to unearth fresh allegations that lower BAE's reputation even further. Senior business people have criticised the dropping of the inquiry, alarmed at its effect on Britain's international reputation. In February, BAE was defeated in court by CAAT after they obtained a copy of CAAT's confidential legal advice.

I hope that people reading this can come along to central London on 9 May, when people of all faiths and none will join a large nonviolent demonstration outside BAE's AGM. Together we will call for the corruption inquiry to be reopened and for the Government to end its intimacy with arms dealers. Please write to your MP or give a donation that can help take the challenge to the courts. You can also raise the issue with your Church, Chaplaincy, Meeting or other group. On 10 June 2007, Saudi Arabia will be the focus of the Day of Prayer to Stop the Arms Trade.

In the past decade, practical action against poverty has increased sharply amongst British Christians. We now have a great opportunity to strike a blow at the trade which keeps the wheels of hunger and destruction turning round. Let us have faith that our descendants will one day celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the arms trade.

Symon Hill is media coordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) in the UK, and an active Quaker Christian.

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