“Is peace for wimps, whereas real governments sell weapons?” So asked George Monbiot recently in The Guardian.
His comment highlighted the government's drive to maximise British arms exports and exposed the activities of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a government agency focused on identifying potential opportunities for arms sales and then pushing for deals. The 500 taxpayer-funded civil servants working for DESO are placed entirely at the service of arms companies. They are headed by a seconded arms industry executive, presently Alan Garwood, who has the formal role of advising government ministers on arms exports.
This influence goes right to the top: one former Head of DESO's biography stated that he enjoyed “direct access to Major and Blair”. Indeed DESO's own website states that the agency “offers defence exporters an unparalleled network of contacts throughout Whitehall”. And with a mandate to brief ministers from different departments on how to lobby for arms deals while visiting countries abroad, it's unsurprising that DESO also boasts that without its assistance, over 75% of arms export orders would not have been achieved.
DESO is uninhibited by ongoing conflicts, human rights abuses, or pressing development needs within buyer countries. British weapons have been used in wars or conflicts on a significant number of occasions. For example by Nigerian troops in the Biafran War (1967-9), in the military coup in Chile (1973), on both sides during the Falklands War (1982) and the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988).
More recently, British weapons helped the Indonesian government to suppress the civilian population in East Timor and Aceh, were used by Israel in Lebanon (1982/2006) and the Occupied Territories and played an important role not only for the UK but also for the US in their invasion of Iraq (2003).
Whether this involvement is compatible with the current government's claim to make Britain a “force for good” is highly controversial. Britain's efforts for development in poorer countries are equally subverted by the arms trade and the role of government. Arms sales not only sabotage development through the conflicts they sustain, but money wasted on military equipment cannot be spent on public services. In 1998, South Africa spent #3 billion on arms from UK and other European companies, money which could have helped to combat its ravaging HIV/AIDS crisis. DESO set up an office in South Africa following the deals.
DESO has been trying to hide its activities from the public for 40 years. This has to change. The Campaign Against Arms Trade, together with more than 30 other organisations and political parties is calling for DESO's closure.
Through a petition, a lobby of MPs, and a corresponding Early Day Motion by Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy, the coalition will send a clear message that time's up for the government's gunrunners. And on 16 October, the headquarters of DESO in Central London will be designated as what they are: a “global danger zone” to world peace.