Stop the death trade!

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Feature by Richard Bingley, Martin Hogbin

One of the world's most famous arms dealers, Sam Cummings, said of the arms trade almost forty years ago: “It is almost a perpetual motion machine. We all agree that the arms race is a disaster, and we all agree that it could lead to an ultimate conflict, which would more or less destroy the civilised world as we know it. The old problem is, who is going to take the first move to really pull back?”

Since those days the Cold War order, and the omnipotent bipolar hostility that ruled our world, has evaporated. But not the arms trade--which has shrunk from a high of taking (US)$70bn of the world's resources in the mid-1980s to around$35-50bn today.

The trade in military equipment (in government and industry circles around the world “arms exports” masquerade under the altruistic term of “defence exports”) tends to be broken down into different categories by the United Nations, other international government organisations and NGOs: small arms, conventional weapons, Weapons of Mass Destruction(WMD). The suppliers are usually private arms corporations (backed by government subsidies, officials and marketing on the larger deals) and defence ministry cast-off schemes--while the buyers could be anybody from rebel groups and paramilitaries to the air forces and armies of some of the world's most repressive regimes.

Small arms to mass destruction

Small arms have been described by former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook as”the basic method of mass killing over the past decade”. The UN estimates that up to 90 per cent of fatalities in conflict are caused by people using firearms. The Small Arms Survey--a widely-respected Geneva based think-tank--claimed in their latest annual publication that one gun existed for every eleven people on earth, and that over 500,000 people are killed every year at the business-end of a gun barrel. The trade in and use of small arms has negative consequences for the health and well-being of communities around the world. As Robert Muggah points out in his article on the impact small arms have on development (p26), even the development community “has yet to fully wake up to the wide-ranging effects of small arms”.

Conventional arms swallow up most of the net worth of the international arms trade but are seemingly relatively innocuous compared to problems caused by firearms. That is until we think of villagers attacked by Scorpion tanks in Aceh,Indonesia, recently (see article on Aceh on p20). Or ponder missile bombardments from (US-supplied) Israeli F-16s which hit not just their intended Hamas assassination target in crowed Gaza in July 2002, but wiped away the lives of nine Palestinian children too. Not just tragedies in themselves, but a guarantee that retribution and violence will follow on all sides, and the drive for arms continues unabated. The largely unrestricted flow of conventional weaponry worth around $40bnevery year during the 1990s feeds arms races and diverts resources in many impoverished areas of the globe.

Weapons of Mass Destruction pro-grammes largely drive hidden trading in components and “dual use” equipment (ie for military or civilian application). These are not just mass-scale security problems,but pose an unenviable challenge for naturally benevolent-minded campaigners who aren't keen to argue that certain distant states shouldn't receive industrial products and technologies which help improve economies and communities—if they are actually applied to the function promised by the recipient. For would have to be a brave campaigner to go on television and say that people in the Middle East shouldn't be allowed certain chemicals to drain terra incognito swamp-land because they could be turned, at some stage, into Sarin Gas by their government--or an allied terrorist organisation!

Globalising resistance

As arms companies globalise, so campaigning globalises too. No longer is it credible(if it ever was) for a government to say “if we didn't sell them weapons, someone else would”. The UN, international governmental organisations and NGOs, are at last combating this anachronistic “establishment” attitude by suggesting that there should be an international treaty governing the arms trade. However, even if these measures are implemented, will states be brave enough to trust international organisations to monitor the end use of every dual-use industrial, chemical or bio product? It seems unlikely.

Between 9 and 12 September 2003, East London is being taken over by the dealers in death. Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi) is a weapons fair and conference of enormous proportions: the London arms bazaar is likely to be one of the world's biggest ever arms exhibitions.

For five days, the Excel centre, a modern complex in London's docklands, will host in the region of 1000 arms companies, selling bombs, planes, tanks, landmines, military electronics, warships, guns, surveillance and riot control equipment to buyers from all over the world. One in three of the world's countries will be at the arms fair,shopping for military equipment. Friend and foe will shop side-by-side for weapons to use against each other. All this will take place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines.

Arms exhibitions are not just plush,high-profile showcase for weapons companies. As DSEi itself boasts, the arms fair will be a place where deals in weapons of death actually take place. At DSEi 2003,arms deals will be signed and sealed, ready for delivery to some of the world's worst regions of conflict, human rights abusing states and poverty stricken nations. That's why this arms fair must be stopped. We must prevent these arms deals from taking place.

Conflict, terrorism, human rights

This year DSEi is expected to invite official delegates from more than 60 countries, from every continent on the globe, to buy and sell the weapons of death. The list of invited guests is kept secret right up until the exhibition begins. But in the past, DSEi has played host to delegates from some of the world's worst human rights abusing states, including Indonesia, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. Inviting delegates to arms exhibitions like DSEi not only provides them with the opportunity to buy the weapons and tools with which they perpetrate human rights abuses, but gives moral and political support to them to do so. It also gives the British government's approval to human rights abuse.

The arms trade is the hub of international and internal conflicts, whatever apologists may say about peacekeeping and the right to self-defence. Simply put,without the international arms trade, countries could not go to war on the scale they do, civilian and military casualties would be far less, and the world would simply be a better, safer, happier place. DSEi is directly responsible for fuelling conflict around the world, allowing arms companies to sell weapons to countries currently at war with each other, on the brink of war or involved in some kind of internal conflict. At DSEi 2001, delegates from no fewer than 23 countries currently at war or in serious conflict were invited.

About CAAT

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) was set up in1974 by a number of peace and other organisations who were concerned about the growth in the arms trade following the Middle East war of 1973. It is a broad coalition of groups and individuals in the UK working to end the international arms trade. In seeking to end it CAAT's priorities are to:

  • end government subsidies and support for arms exports;
  • end exports to oppressive regimes;
  • end exports to countries involved in an armed conflict or region of tension;
  • end exports to countries whose social welfare is threatened by military spending;
  • support measures, both in the UK and internationally, which will regulate and reduce the arms trade and lead to it eventually end.

CAAT, 11 Goodwin St, London N4 3HQ,Britain (+44 20 7281 0297; fax 7281 4369; email; ).


The most horrific weapons

As if the dealing in weapons of death was not enough, the DSEi exhibition has been the venue for two separate breaches of worldwide anti-personnel landmines legislation. The 1998 UK Landmines Act, which follows global landmines treaties,rules than any person involved in the production, sale, promotion or transfer of anti-personnel landmines should face up to 14 years in prison.

At DSEi 1999, undercover journalists revealed that a Romanian state arms firm,Romtechnica, had promotional material for anti-personnel landmines on its stand--which it later admitted. Exhibitors at the stall told the journalist they could arrange the transfer of the weapons, even though they were illegal. At the same arms fair, BBC journalists met representatives of Pakistan Ordnance Factories(POF), another small-arms firm. After the exhibition, POF again offered illegal anti-personnel landmines for sale, as well as illegal shipments of small arms to Sudan.

The British police were asked to investigate both cases, and failed to bring any charges at all in either case. The DSEi exhibition admitted it had no specific checks in place for preventing illegal sales of landmines. Meanwhile, after two activists chained themselves to a train outside DSEi 2001, to prevent delegates from doing illegal deals and preventing a greater crime, they were duly arrested,charged and harassed by police. The judge in the case refused to accept they were attempting to prevent the illegal promotion and sale of anti-personnel landmines.

But it is not just arms trade-related crimes that take place here in Britain that the British police have been asked--and failed--to investigate, writing in his detailed article on the South African arms deal (p22-24), Terry Crawford Browne comments “When allegations arose that BAe Systems had paid #1 million to various South African politicians as a `first success fee', they were referred for investigation to the British Secretary for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers. Byers delegated the task to the London Metropolitan Police who, with desultory indifference, reported back that there was insufficient evidence to pursue the matter.”

From a few landmines to tens of billions of pounds worth of equipment, it pears the death dealers are experts at escaping justice--with a little help from their friends.

Stop DSEi 2003

DSEi 2003 is likely to follow the same pattern as previously. Government ministers will attend and hundreds of arms companies, from all over the world, are likely to do both legal and illegal deals in the weapons of death.

Thousands of police will be drafted in to protect the arms dealers, and repressive policing measures will prevent normal,concerned people from expressing their disgust, dismay and anger at one of the largest weapons fairs ever taking place.

However, with concerted, united but diverse and determined protest we can stop DSEi 2003 and similar arms fairs around the world, and strike a blow at this horrific trade in death.