Arms pushers to close! Campaigners celebrate victory

IssueSeptember 2007
News by Symon Hill

Anti-arms trade campaigners are celebrating a historic victory following the prime minister's announcement that he will close the infamous Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a unit of the Ministry of Defence that promotes sales for private arms companies.

DESO has long been seen as a channel through which arms dealers exercise excessive influence over government.

The news follows decades of activism against DESO, with a particularly high-profile campaign in the last two years.

Lower budget

Arms exports will now be promoted with civil exports through UK Trade and Investment, with a budget likely to be much lower.

DESO's closure is expected to remove arms dealers' easy access to ministers and knock a considerable dent in their influence.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has declared its delight with the news, arguing that this must be the first step towards ending arms companies' undemocratic influence in the corridors of power.

CAAT will monitor developments carefully, keeping a close eye on the resources given to arms exports under the new arrangements. However, CAAT has no doubt that this is a massive breakthrough.

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) Director Chris Cole similarly insisted that: “The closure of DESO will have a real and significant impact on the UK arms trade.”

BAE “fury”

Anyone who doubts this need only look at the reaction of arms companies, described in the media as “furious”.

BAE boss Mike Turner fired off an angry letter to Gordon Brown, demanding a meeting. Tory defence spokesperson Gerald Howarth referred to the plan to close DESO as “outrageous”.

The anger of BAE and its friends is unsurprising to anyone who has examined DESO's role.

Despite being staffed with civil servants and funded by taxpayers, DESO's first loyalty is to arms companies. The head of DESO receives both a civil service salary and a “top-up” payment from the arms industry.

When asked if this caused a conflict of interest, his predecessor Tony Edwards said: “I'm working for them [the arms companies] openly and overtly anyway.”

Campaign countdown

Countless people deserve praise for their contribution to this campaign. Many have campaigned for DESO's closure for decades and laid the foundation for more recent work.

Last year saw a build-up of opposition to DESO, with 35 organisations signing a statement calling for it to be shut. In March this year, the Treasury received a petition with over 10,000 signatures.

On the same day, a speaker at DESO's annual symposium stated that their trade was threatened by “public pressure from NGOs like CAAT”.

In June, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Timms MP, met with campaigners' representatives to hear the case against DESO.

Early July saw a flurry of leak-fuelled media speculation about DESO's future, and on 25 July, Gordon Brown declared that DESO would be closed by the end of the year.

There can be no doubt that arms dealers will do everything they can to maintain their influence over Government through other means.

CAAT and other campaigners will keep up the pressure to prevent this happening, and will not celebrate final victory until the arms trade is abolished all together.

Nonetheless, the news of DESO's closure has taught the UK's astonished arms companies that they can no longer expect to have things all their own way.

Topics: Arms trade