UK Arms Exports: Killing In The Name Of

The UK state, and the arms industry it cherishes, are complicit in these events, these human rights violations, these atrocities. Westminster fuels the fires of North Africa and the Middle East. That is why the following information matters to the pursuit of global justice and to the choice that Scotland faces in 2014. We must seek military-industrial Independence.

History Repeats Itself / History Repeating

Between 1978 and 1999, Hawk aircraft, Scorpion tanks and Stormer armoured personal carriers were sold to Indonesia. These weapons were unleashed in East Timor.  British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) Hawk jets were used in the ‘encirclement and annihilation’ campaign which enforced acts of mass violence. Impoverished concentration camps were established without access to food aid. Starvation ensued. Torture (electro shock and psychological manipulation) was based upon the Kubark manual and the ‘research’ of The University of Glasgow’s Ewen Cameron. 200,000 people are estimated to have been murdered during the 20 year occupation. Amongst this horror, the United Kingdom provided weaponry to Indonesia: fuelling the fire. It did so until East Timor’s liberation in 1999. A review of export sales was promised.

Complicity in genocide did not sour the UK’s appraisal of arms exports. Here are six recent cases.

1) Israel

In 2008-09 Israel bombed Gaza in ‘Operation Cast Lead’. A UN investigation concluded that Israel had deliberately targeted civilians with 350 children among those killed. UK arms exports were “almost certainly” used, according to the Government. A review of export sales was promised.

2) Sri Lanka

In 2009 Sri Lanka’s final offensive against the Tamil Tigers involved the deaths of 7,000 Tamil civilians. David Miliband was among those who called for a war-crime investigation. UK arms exporters had sold £13.4 million of armoured vehicles, machine gun components and semi-automatic pistols to the Sri Lankan Government in the previous three years.

3) Yemen

Saudi Arabia carried out air-strikes on Yemen, 2009-10. While the Foreign Office stated that it was “deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia”, Amnesty International reported that UK arms exports were used in the attacks and perhaps in war-crimes. Yemen continues to be bombarded. (see this Al Jazeera report on current U.S. drone attacks) Saudi Arabia has expanded its regional aggression and continues its internal repression.

4) Bahrain

The Arab Spring uncovered further connections between dictators and UK arms exporters. In 2010 tear gas, crowd control armaments and sniper rifles were sold from the UK to Bahrain. In 2011 the arms exports were turned upon their people. Saudi Arabia was ‘invited’ to help quell the pro-democracy demonstrations. Its army procured armoured vehicles from BAE Systems Land Systems Division in Newcastle for this task. Bahrain protesters were in effect shot twice with British bullets.

5) Egypt

Mubarak’s regime in Egypt was similarly supplied, while it tortured its people and suppressed protest. Although the army joined the demonstrations, there remains an unsteady transition from military to democratic rule to manoeuvre.

6) Libya

This cannot be said of Libya. The 2005 ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between Tony Blair and Gadaffi gave the green light for UK arms sales and BP’s oil investment. In that year the UK soared from 0% of Libya’s EU arms imports to 82%. Good business for some. Sales continued, as in the horrors of East Timor, until the regime cracked and NATO began arming the rebels for balance. UK Tear gas, crowd control armament, sniper rifles and armoured vehicles were sold and then ‘applied’ to target and control civilians.A review of arms sales was promised.

This heavy description of recent events is a sad but necessary precursor to begin a discussion on the UK arms industry. The ethical challenge stems from this violence and oppression.

On Whose Hands? United Kingdom: Profit, Sleaze & War

As Libyan protesters fell dying on the streets of Tripoli, David Cameron accompanied UK arms dealers on his Middle East business tour. Thatcher – whose Government sold arms to Argentina prior to the Falklands War – would have been proud. He was, in her most British of fashions, ‘exerting influence abroad’ and ‘standing up for business’. What business is this exactly?

The Stockholm International Peace Institute’s 100 largest arms sellers is dominated by the Anglosphere. Similar to total military spending there is an overpowering American dominance; by extension the arms table also contains 10 UK corporations. Most have a heavy reliance upon Pentagon and Ministry of Defence contracts. BAE – by far the largest British based multinational – received £4 billion from the MoD in 2011 alone.

War makes big profits. Armaments sold to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are not merely condoned by the UK state, they are facilitated and incentivised. This is corruption of human dignity. That the UK state promotes profiteering from violence is the worst indictment of its political system. The expenses scandal or manifesto deceits shrivel in stark contrast to the humanitarian tragedies of the arms industry. Its leaders are enveloped within the culture and finance of Whitehall – in the UKTI DSO, which facilitates arms exports, and through arms subsidies which incentivise them.

The UK Trade and Investment: Defence and Security Organisation exists to sell British arms abroad by whatever means necessary. Within the Business, Innovation and Skills department, arms exporters hold a disproportionate influence. The DSO staff is over 150 – more than that of every other UKTI export sector combined. Arms exports are a mere 1.5% of the UK total. The Department is a free-for-all. Sales have little accountability (in 2010, 10,850 licenses were accepted; with only 230 refused). It has full access to the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy for arms demonstrations. These performances revolve around ‘Arms Fairs’ including the notorious, bi-annual DSEi held in London for the world’s militaries – the foul and the foulest. Their “Brochure” is available at this linkunder ‘related documents’ for any interested buyers out there.

Such militarism doesn’t come cheap. Despite their status as private corporations – and their reliance upon state procurement programs – arms exports are subsidised by the taxpayer. Recent analysis, also by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, measured this subsidy as £2.1bn over the past 3 years. This is accrued through research and development funding and export credits. BAE Systems ploughed nearly £100m of research funding into 18 UK universities. (the University of Glasgow refused to comply) The Government pays the bills while BAE reaps the rewards of research and profitable arms sales. Such generous funding co-exists with a sycophantic political will. Political will is often short-sighted and damaging. With arms exports at only 2% of UK manufacturing, the state support is staggering. The downgrading of renewable energy in Westminster adds to this incredulity.

It is no surprise that an industry with such influence harbours corruption. Similar to the echelons of other corporate sectors, there is a revolving door between the military, politics and arms company boards. The arms sector – by its size, complexity and secrecy – is particularly hard-wired for corruption. In July the UN failed to agree to a treaty to regulate the industry. The most notorious case in the UK concerns BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. The Serious Fraud Office investigated BAE from 2004-06 until the Government heavy handedly halted investigations. Only minimal charges were ever heard in London. In Washington, BAE pleaded guilty to “conspiring to defraud the U.S.”resulting in a $400 million fine – one of the largest in the history of U.S. fraud cases.

Among this structure of power, profits, and fraud there is profit from violence: that is inherent in the industry’s purpose. On the UK Government’s part, however, there is hypocrisy.

In 2010 the Foreign Office identified 26 “countries of concern” within its human rights report. In that same year the UK Government supported arms deals to 16 of those countries. The Guardian provides an excellent info-graphic for arms exports to ‘countries of concern’ in 2011. The UK state cannot promote both arms and democracy; yet David Cameron swaggered from his photo-op at Tahrir Square – raising a Bullingdon toast to democracy – before firing to his security enclosure to sell weapons to sadists. Vince Cable raised concerns, but William Hague shot him down. A review of export sales was promised.

This is the UK state. James Foley’s pamphlet The Internationalist Case For Independence makes the case that arms deals form a fragment of a wider imperialism. The UK, the author claims, is an accomplice within the ‘American Order’ of capital and militarism. Britannia is the Athens to America’s Rome, as ‘damp squib’ Niall Fergusonwould have us believe.

This recognises the second answer to ‘Killing in the Name Of?‘. There is profit – as drove Halliburton to $17.2 billion from Iraq, BAE to a ‘urgent’ influx of £400 million from Afghanistan, and concerns the industry today when “Peace is bad for business.” And there is UK ‘cultural exceptionalism’. That was the attitude which led Ernest Bevin to say of acquiring nuclear weapons, “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs…We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” The mythology of this state is invested in conflict and weaponry. Only within the bunkers and towers of Whitehall can they justify the £2.1 billion spent on arms research and development, 10% of total output. The methods of UK power and coercion are inescapable; military prowess demands exploitation in word, funding and deed. Attlee’s Government failed to escape it; and each successive Government since has clung to the military, to war, to Polaris or Trident. Arms deals help to disguise the political impotency of Britain’s imperial decline One day it will end, perhaps with a thud.

Until then Scotland sinks in a cultural malaise – unable to recognise the most regressive and violent aspects of the UK state. Iraq. Trident. Arms sales. Where is the true union? Perhaps it is found in Abu Dhabi where UKTI DSO, General Dynamics UK and the Libyan Army united at the IDEX Arms Fair. In unison, the UK Government, the arms industry and the British Embassy in Tripoli campaigned to cement the deal with the ‘mad dog’ of North Africa. By July 2008 there was celebration: communications systems for Gaddafi’s tanks were sold. In DMA News (Defence Manufacturers Association) the Government heralded “a first step towards further Industrial Partnerships with Libya”. There weren’t many more steps. Soon the Government spoke of Gadaffi going ‘door-to-door’ in Benghazi.  British technology meant Gaddafi knew where to go. The desert shook under the weight of our expensive technological warfare. Yet, for the sun-struck militias, there was nothing to fear: NATO’s Tomahawk missiles were coming for humanitarian purposes. Where blood shines upon the sand, Britain will be there. That is our Union.

As individuals we have distant views of the world’s bloodshed, yet the UK Government still holds power in the Middle East and North Africa. The problem is that it is a destabilising power. War, occupations and arms exports are all aggressive forms of power. As National Collective point out in this excellent editorial, the referendum is between “two very different ideologies of power”. The power to coerce is less and less relevant to the modern world; with the mushroom cloud of war appearing increasingly outdated in a post-Cold War world. The power of Scotland to promote universal education, clean energy, and nuclear disarmament is truly significant in contrast. That is the underlying message of the UK arms industry – its destruction and its growing irrelevance – from which Scotland can gain true military-industrial Independence.

Michael Gray
National Collective 

For more information on Campaign Against the Arms Trade visit

Illustration by Surian Soosay.


About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.