Monday, March 7, 2011

Put merchants of death out of business

Over the past few years I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the arms industry. Just as I tend to become transfixed in art galleries, the images of precision-guided missiles in “defence” magazines can leave me with a pleasantly blank sensation. That’s when I have to shake myself and recall that these photogenic instruments were designed for the sole purpose of ending human life.

The promotional copy pumped out by weapons manufacturers renders satire redundant. In February, Belgium’s FN Herstal displayed some of its shiny new assault pistols and submachine guns at the IDEX arms fair in Abu Dhabi. An explanatory note told us that the Li├Ęge-based firm “contributes to maintain and restore international peace and security”.

One day after the exhibition opened, a video appeared on YouTube. It showed a Libyan civilian clasping one of the “special” weapons held by forces under Muammar Gaddafi’s control. Branded an FN-303, the weapon was made by the aforementioned Herstal, as part of its contribution to international peace and security. About 2,000 such weapons were authorised for export to Libya by the Walloon regional government in June 2009. This is by no means the first time that Herstal has profited from grubby deals. Automatic rifles made by the company were found in eastern Congo in 2005, indicating they were used in a war that left nearly 400,000 people dead over the previous two years.

In a prescient report published in November last, the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade cited Libya as one of the clearest cases where EU governments attach greater importance to “export promotion” than to ethical considerations when licensing the arms trade. When Gaddafi was the West’s favourite bogeyman in the mid-1980s, the European Community imposed an arms embargo on Libya. But as soon as it was lifted in 2004, arms exporters scrambled to do business with their new buddies. The British trade association Defence Manufacturers Association rhapsodised in 2005 about how Libya was a “relatively sophisticated customer with a political will to procure equipment”. The “relatively sophisticated” Gaddafi could be persuaded to be anything: one British deal to supply an elite brigade in Libya’s army was worth €100 million.

Since 1998, the EU’s governments have been committed to observing a “code of conduct” on arms exports. Made legally binding a decade later, it requires that weapons are not sold to countries where they are likely to be used for internal repression or to exacerbate regional tensions. Like more than a few policy documents, it looks great on paper and is routinely violated in practice.

It is not difficult to see why. Data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that the arms trade has been largely cushioned from the global recession. In 2009, the volume of sales for the world’s top 100 arms companies amounted to $401 billion, a rise of almost $15 billion over the preceding year. One-third of these companies have their headquarters in Western Europe; they include BAE, EADS, Finmeccanica and Thales.

With their deep pockets, the representatives of these companies have no problem twisting arms in the Brussels bureaucracy and in national capitals of EU countries. Due to their diligent schmoozing, support for the arms industry is being treated as an enterprise promotion dossier in the nominally civilian European Commission. The EU’s multi-annual “framework programme” for scientific research has also been partly hijacked by the arms industry. A little-noticed study completed at the European Parliament’s request in 2010 decried a clash of interests: the same arms companies that persuaded the EU authorities to allocate science grants for “security research” after the 11 September 2001 attacks have been the biggest recipients of those same grants. Out of a sample of 91 projects with a total value of €443 million analysed for that study, the French firm Thales bagged well over half (€254 million) of the cash on offer.

Top-level politicians often double up as salespeople for the arms industry. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is pushing for the arms embargo slapped on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre to be scrapped on the grounds that relations with Beijing need to be nurtured for strategic reasons. Proving that she suffers from the same lack of scruples as other top players in New Labour, she is more concerned with drumming up business for the arms industry than in China’s oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang or Buddhists in Tibet. Proving, too, that mollycoddling the arms industry transcends party lines in British politics, David Cameron toured the Persian Gulf last month with a few of his country’s leading arms traders. Critics of the trade are “completely at odds with reality”, the prime minister thundered.

It is right that a fresh ban on weapons sales to Libya has now been introduced. But we know that such bans can be lifted on the flimsiest of pretexts. The EU officially stopped selling weapons to Uzbekistan after its troops mowed down peaceful protesters at Andizhan in 2005. Four years later, the embargo was removed because the Uzbek authorities were deemed useful allies for NATO’s imperial war in Afghanistan.

At the United Nations, a July 2012 deadline has been set for a global treaty to regulate the arms trade. As weapons-sellers are so powerful, there is only one way to combat them: by massive public pressure. Everything must be done to put merchants of death out of business.

·First published by New Europe (, 6-12 March 2011.

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