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The Human Cost of European Arms Sales

By Andrew Smith

Public opinion across the EU takes a decisive hard line against arming human rights-abusing regimes, yet weapons manufactured in Europe continue to be used in conflict and atrocities by Saudi Arabia and others. Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade unpacks the government-backed business supplying weapons around the world, international tools for blocking arms sales, and why the UK’s arms industry is booming post-Brexit.

Green European Journal: What does the arms trade from Europe to the Middle East look like around Europe in terms which countries are involved and what is being sold?

Andrew Smith: Some of the biggest arms-trading governments in the world are in Europe. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy are all major arms exporters and the Middle East is a very large market. Take the UK as an example: roughly 60 per cent of the UK’s arms exports annually go to the Middle East, which has a hugely disproportionate role in the UK arms trade. Since the war in Yemen started in March 2015, the UK has licensed 4.7 billion pounds of fighter jets, missiles, and bombs to the Saudi regime. But the UK is far from the only country arming the Saudi regime and the other countries taking part in the bombing and invasion of Yemen. France sells vast quantities of arms to Saudi forces every year. Germany is starting to review its position but it has being saying that for a long time.

The Middle East has played – and will continue to do so – a massive role in the arms trade. One of the reasons is because wherever there is war and conflict there will be arms companies looking to make a profit. Some countries have reviewed their arms sales in light of the war in Yemen, Finland has stopped arms exports to UAE and Saudi Arabia because of their conduct. Germany has said that they will prevent certain sales going forward but, fundamentally, almost all of the governments that sold arms to Saudi Arabia before the conflict are still doing so. And that is quite representative of the broader range of relationships to regimes and dictatorships in the region. 

Does the Finnish decision or that of Germany indicate a wider movement, in terms of government policy as well as in terms of public opinion, away from arms sales?

It’s not always the case that a policy change is needed; it’s often a political and cultural one. In theory, the legislation is already there. The problem comes from the interpretation. When arms exports are continued, it is always the result of political decisions. We know where public opinion stands. If we look at polling in the UK, the vast majority of people are against arms exports to human rights-abusing regimes. Polling done by Populus in February 2018 showed that only 6 per cent of people think that it is acceptable to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Statistics from polling commissioned this year in France show that public attitudes there are very much the same.

When arms exports are continued, it is always the result of political decisions.

Whenever there are large-scale arms sales, there is generally large-scale public opposition. The challenge is making sure that public opposition informs the debate. Arms companies put a lot of money and time into lobbying and enjoy hugely disproportionate influence in the corridors of power, whether that is in Westminster in the UK or in the European Parliament in Brussels. Ultimately that lobbying supports the relationships that enable the arms industry to carry on producing and selling their wares. We believe that people in Europe do not support these arms sales and that change is possible, but it will take a lot of work.

Around Europe, there are governments that are neutral or like Sweden that has recently adopted a feminist ethical foreign policy. Do these countries still participate in the arms trade?

The Swedish government has historically talked a good game while selling vast quantities of arms around the world. There is often a gap between the rhetoric of human rights and the reality of the arms trade. It is not that the Swedish government is uniquely bad; this is something that applies to pretty much every government across Europe. The arms trade is a global industry with footprints in almost every country and high levels of cross-border collaboration. The Eurofighter jets used by Saudi Arabia for example, while being manufactured in the UK, are made by a consortium that comprises UK company BAE Systems, Airbus in Germany, and Leonardo in Italy.

The European Union has a mechanism to control arms sales in certain cases, the Common Position. What is the Common Position and how does it work?

The Common Position is the mutually agreed framework through which European arms exports are meant to be regulated, which has sometimes led to specific embargoes. Now in theory, it is supposed to prevent the sale of arms and weapons to countries or conflicts where there is a risk of weapons being used to violate international humanitarian law. But that’s being put to the test now in Yemen, where Saudi forces are widely accused of some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law. And yet all the major arms suppliers in Europe are still supplying arms there.

However, some arms embargoes have worked effectively. Take Central African Republic – we are not aware of arms that have gone to Central African Republic from Europe to be used in the ongoing civil war that began in 2012. Another example is Russia. Although almost every major arms-exporting country in Europe armed Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the past, that has not been the case since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Of course we would also argue that arms exports to Putin’s Russia should not have been allowed in the first place, but that’s a separate point.

There is often a gap between the rhetoric of human rights and the reality of the arms trade.

We can also look at two embargoes that haven’t worked. There is the example of China, on which the EU adopted an arms embargo in 1989. At the time, the embargo was reasonably well observed but, as China raised its military spending, the interpretation changed. Today Europe sells millions and millions of pounds of arms to the Chinese military every year. The legislation has now been interpreted to mean that, while we cannot not sell machine guns, we can sell fighter jet parts, military helicopters, and targeting equipment. 

Another even weaker embargo is that against Egypt, which was adopted following the coup in 2013. At the time, the European Union brought in what it called a ‘voluntary embargo’. But, because it was voluntary, it hasn’t been followed in the slightest. The UK is one of the many governments that has continued to arm President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s appalling regime. One of the lessons from the cases of China and Egypt is that when there is a direct contradiction between human rights and arms companies’ profits, major arms-exporting nations prioritise arms exports.

The arms trade is a global industry and many countries produce and export arms. How effectively does limiting arms sales prevent conflict?

A fundamental issue is that the lifespan of weapons is far longer than the lifespan of any political situation or government to which arms are sold. A classic example would be that of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. After Gaddafi was “brought in from the cold” by Tony Blair in 2004, Libya became a large buyer of UK arms right until the months before the bombing of Libya in 2011. By that point though, Gaddafi was about to turn arms on the Libyan people. So one of the big concerns is that today’s arms sales could be used in atrocities for decades to come.

In 2016, the Saudi Arabian government publicly admitted that it was using UK-made cluster bombs sold in the 1980s in the bombardment of Yemen. This came after months of denial following allegations from Amnesty International. While the UK signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2010, countless cluster bombs are still in circulation, live and viable. All arms export policy has to make the lifespan of weaponry a central point.

How can international mechanisms be made more robust to protect human rights more effectively?

There are times when international campaigns and legislation have worked: the cluster bomb convention or the Campaign to Ban Landmines are good examples. But, in terms of the broader industry, it comes down to political will. The European Parliament has voted various times for an embargo on arms exports on Saudi Arabia, but those were non-binding votes and real change has to come from governments. A government like the UK or France could set a vital international precedent with a proper policy change. It would also make other exporters feel far less secure in their arms sales.

To look at the British situation, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both in power fairly recently, have changed their positions on arms sales. How do you explain that? Is it driven by public opinion? Is it driven by world events? 

Public opinion and world events have both played a role. The polling has always shown that most people in the UK oppose arms exports to human rights-abusing regimes, but the UK’s complicity in the ongoing destruction of Yemen has undoubtedly concentrated this. In the case of the Labour party, under Jeremy Corbyn the leadership is very different to what it was under previous leaders. Corbyn was a left-wing backbencher until three years ago with a consistent record of principled opposition against arms sales to human rights abusers.

Until three years ago, the Liberal Democrats were part of a coalition government and the minister in charge of signing off arms export licenses was current leader Vince Cable. As the responsible minister, he signed off on billions of pounds of arms exports to human rights-abusing regimes, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel. Once out of government, the Liberal Democrats adopted a policy of automatic refusal to any Foreign Office ‘country of concern’ for human rights abuses. So while today’s policy is very sensible, it is at odds with what happened in government.

What about the other political parties such as the Greens and the Scottish National Party (SNP)?

The SNP has taken a strong line on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in particular, as well as more broadly, and this includes MPs who represent large numbers of people who work in the arms trade. As for the Greens, Caroline Lucas [MP and co-leader stepping down in September 2018] has always been very strong on arms trade policy, as on foreign policy issues more generally.

However, there are not always straightforward party-political splits on the arms trade. Some Labour MPs are very pro-industry, such as Graham Jones, MP for Hyndburn, who is very happy to defend arms exports to human rights-abusing regimes. Similarly, you can come across MPs that surprise you, for example Jim Shannon of the Democratic Unionist Party has given powerful speeches in Parliament against arms exports to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It’s probably one of the only issues where Jim Shannon agrees with Sinn Fein.

A key defence of the arms trade is that it is a high-value manufacturing industry. How do you respond to people who say that we need to protect the arms trade to protect employment?

Looking at the UK, according to the arms lobby the Aerospace, Defence and Security Group, the amount of people employed in arms exports is about 55 000. That represents 0.2 per cent of people employed in the UK. However, in certain parts of the country, it is a major employer. If there was a political move away from arms, then we would need to see the same political support given to other areas of engineering such as renewable energy, that are currently experiencing a skills shortage.

when there is a direct contradiction between human rights and arms companies’ profits, major arms-exporting nations prioritise arms exports

One significant point is that the Trade Union Congress has recently taken on a policy of supporting the creation of a Defence Diversification Agency to look at how skills could be reinvested elsewhere. If the UK was to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia tomorrow, there would be a lot of skilled workers wanting to see government doing everything it can to support industries that provide skilled work but that do not depend on conflict and ever-escalating humanitarian abuses.

Another argument in favour of defence investment, and one that you hear a lot in relation to Silicon Valley, is that military technology is eventually taken up by the market and used to develop new products.

The reason why this research is currently done by the arms industry is precisely because they have a lot of money and can afford to throw it around. But there is no reason why similar levels of government funding cannot be used to fund research for civilian purposes. Technological development would not suddenly end if arms sales ceased. Even if you believe that the UK needs a strong military and that we need to develop military technology, selling arms and missiles to human rights-abusing regimes is not the only way to do so.

UK arms exports seem to have increased since the Brexit vote. What is the relationship of the arms industry to Brexit and some visions of the British economy post-Brexit?

In the lead up to Brexit, arms companies were uniformly against leaving the European Union because they were concerned that it would make the industry more expensive and make cooperation with other European companies more complicated. However, the impact of Brexit on the UK arms trade is much harder to pin down. There is a very serious concern that Brexit could see an even greater emphasis on unethical trade deals with regimes with appalling human rights records. We have seen an interesting dynamic in relation to Turkey. Many European governments have taken a stronger line with Turkey in response to the ongoing crackdown of President Recep Erdoğan’s government. However, the UK government has treated this as an opportunity. In 2017, Theresa May went to Turkey and signed a 100 million pound fighter jet deal.

UK arms exports are increasing to a whole series of very questionable regimes such as in the Philippines and Thailand. That is not to say that these deals would not have happened without Brexit, but arms companies do need to keep their profits up. Earlier this year, CAAT found that in the 12 months since the Brexit vote, arms sales to human rights-abusing regimes increased by up to one third. We need to ask serious questions about the direction this is taking and if the UK is going to make itself increasingly dependent on arms exports to human rights-abusing regimes.

There is a real question of our governments’ and societies’ complicity in the destruction caused by arms in conflicts around the world.

The key point in all of this is the humanitarian cost. All summer 2018, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been bombing the port town of Hodeida, through which 70 per cent of all aid passes into Yemen during what the United Nations Secretary General has referred to as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Schools and hospitals have been struck. Over one million people have been infected by cholera, the worst outbreak on record, and in June one of Médecins Sans Frontières’ cholera treatment centres was hit by the Saudi-led coalition. The humanitarian crisis is truly devastating and yet arms sales have continued.

Whether through military support or the political support that has gone with it, the UK government has been utterly complicit in that destruction. This is the true human cost of the arms trade, uncritical relations with human rights-abusing regimes, and is the end point of a longstanding policy of putting arms company interests first. Whenever you hear companies like BAE Systems talking about the work they do, there is no reflection on how these weapons are used. They talk about engineering excellence and promoting world peace through selling weapons. What we have to remember is that Roger Carr, the chairman of BAE systems, will never be in a village in Yemen while a British-made fighter jet is flying overhead. The people who profit are so far removed from the destruction which their weapons are capable of carrying out and will never see the devastation that arms sales cause.

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The Human Cost of European Arms Sales

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