Monday, July 4, 2011

Dodgy arms dealers dictate policies

To William Hague, the wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa this year constitute “the most important event of the early twenty-first century”. The foreign secretary’s paeans to freedom have been effusive but evasive. One salient fact that he neglected to mention in a May address to London’s Mansion House is that Britain has helped suppress some of the very same protests.

Two months earlier, Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to defend a beleaguered monarchy, bringing numerous tanks supplied by BAE Systems with them. Known as Tacticas, these tanks were made in the northern English city of Newcastle (with final assembly in Belgium). Saudi Arabia ordered over 260 of these vehicles in 2006, on the proviso they would be delivered in 2008. While the relevant licenses were issued under a Labour government, the current coalition in London hasn’t revoked any export permits for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

BAE is a byword for dodgy deals. Early last year, it paid a fine of $400 million to avoid being sued for corruption – over sales to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – by the US Department of Justice. A British Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE’s Saudi connections was shelved in 2006 on the order of that other valiant defender of liberty Tony Blair.

Its tarnished reputation does not seem to bother European Union’s officials, however. The European Defence Agency has tasked BAE with drawing up a blueprint for meeting the Union’s requirements on “precision guided ammunition” by the end of this year. Precision-guided weapons are supposed to allow targets be selected with pinpoint accuracy but they are invariably used to butcher the innocent.

This is one of many troubling activities by the EDA that elicits virtually no criticism in the press. The agency is obsessed with pilotless drones – or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) - and believes it’s imperative that they are used for everything bar washing the dishes. Research by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, estimates that for every “militant” killed in US drone attacks undertaken as part of its “war on terror”, 10 civilians have also been killed.

An EDA paper on drones that I stumbled upon indicates that the agency’s contractors have a twisted worldview. This paper was written for the agency by BMT Defence Services, a designer of warships. It referred to scenarios BMT was studying on the use of drones and indicated that the analytical system it had devised could enable distinctions to be drawn “between friendly and potentially hostile population groups”.

Although the agency’s staff routinely reel off three-letter acronyms, only one such acronym is apt in this case: WTF. What is the real message here: that population groups opposed to the military invasion of their country can be considered as “legitimate” targets? That notion is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Israel, home to some of the world’s leading weapons firms, declared Gaza an “enemy entity” in 2007. By the end of the following year, Israel was testing out its state-of-the-art drones on this “hostile population”. The “collateral damage” included children and pregnant women.

During last month’s Paris Air Show – a jamboree for the arms industry – the EDA formally signed a cooperation accord with the European Space Agency, a nominally civilian body. At a briefing beforehand, journalists were assured that the EDA has no intention of introducing weapons into Space. Rather, the agency’s focus is on bits of debris floating around in parts of the universe and the threats they could pose to this planet.

I am sceptical of that assurance. The history of the EU’s adventures in Space are that projects that appear benign end up having other applications. In 2002, the European Commission recommended that Galileo, the satellite navigation system, should be civilian in nature. By 2008, the same institution indicated that the military would comprise about half of all clients with access to Galileo’s encrypted signals.

Moreover, some informed analysts predict that the drones so dear to the EDA’s heart will soon make extensive use of satellite technology. A 2010 study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs argued that improved satellite communications capacities will be “absolutely essential” for drones over the coming two decades.

There is a more fundamental reason why the EDA should be regarded as sinister: it is the brainchild of the arms industry. After pushing for an agency of its type to be established for many years, weapons manufacturers saw their wish come true in 2004. BAE and its French equivalent Thales were then represented on an official working group that drafted part of the EU constitution, which was subsequently copied and pasted into the Lisbon Treaty. To their delight, that treaty allows the agency to take “any useful measure” to “strengthen the industrial and technological base” of Europe’s arms industry.

One probable consequence of that clause is that the Union’s scientific research programme will be used to develop the weapons of the future. Indeed, this may already be happening. Thales is the top recipient of grants earmarked for “security” projects under the current multi-annual programme, which runs from 2007 to 2013. While all these schemes are supposed to be non-military, there are no safeguards in place to prevent the fruits of EU-funded research being used for aggressive purposes.

The arms industry thrives on the destruction of human life and the denial of human rights. Its level of influence is pernicious.

·First published by New Europe, 3-9 July 2011

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