New UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has indicated that he will shut down the main government overseas arms sales office – at least in its present form. Campaigners, including church peace groups, are hoping this may signal a more basic shift away from dependence on military exports.
The Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) was originally established by Labour defence minister Denis Healey – later to become an influential Foreign Secretary – in 1966. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher gave a huge boost to arms sales, without great regard for their impact on human rights, development and conflict. New Labour has followed similar policies.
Mr Brown told members of Parliament in a written statement on 25 July 2007 that in the future arms exports are to be integrated with the government’s general trade support activities.
The British government will move “responsibility for defence trade promotion from DESO to UK Trade and Investment,” the statement said. “This will provide much greater institutional alignment across government.”
UK Trade and Investment is a government body responsible for aiding exports of all kinds from Britain, and providing assistance for incoming investment, reports DefeseNews.Com.
The impact of the move is likely to be complex. On the one hand, it may involve lessening direct support for arms sales. But on the other, it might disguise the military component of exports yet further.
“A more detailed statement on the future trajectory of Britain’s involvement in military exports is needed to make sense of this move”, commented Simon Barrow of the think tank Ekklesia, which works on alternatives to armed interventions and promotes conflict transformation.
He added: “The UK is a leading arms exporter. It can and should play a role in radically lessening dependence, both military and economic, on the trade; and prioritizing policies of restraint based on global agreement, human rights promotion, poverty elimination and the reduction of conflict. Arms sales should be seen as a foreign policy issue, not as a hidden component of a general trade policy – which could be the danger of this move.”
“In principle, however, the churches and those working for conflict resolution and peace will welcome the end of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) and the culture of collusion with militaristic thinking and aggressive promotion of arms sales that it represented,” commented Barrow.
British defense exports are second only to those of the United States. DESO figures released recently show exports in 2006 reached 10 billion US dollars, part of a total of 41 billion dollars in overseas sales made since 1998.
One government insider told DefenseNews that it appears the size, shape and nature of the government effort in the military export sector is likely to change.
Mr Brown’s statement said account would be taken of the “specific features of defence exports, including the continuing role of the Ministry of Defence.”
Institutional arrangements will come into effect as quickly as possible after an implementation plan to replace DESO is completed by the end of 2007, said the statement.
BAE Systems, the country’s largest military and aerospace firm, said it was “surprised and disappointed about this decision.”