Arms trade protester

Trading in Misery: The arms trade, empire and international law

Kirsten Bayes argues that the UK’s addiction to arms trading is a vestige of empire and great power politics that continues to empower despots and immiserate the world’s most vulnerable people.

If you find yourself on the Mall in London, perhaps looking for a shortcut to Piccadilly, you may come across the statue to King George VI, the last British Emperor of India. The memorial marks the end of nearly two centuries of British control over the subcontinent: centuries that enriched a privileged few, while poverty, famine and epidemics shortened the lives of many.

Behind this ageing relic of empire, sits a very modern office building: the headquarters of BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company (and 6th largest in the world). BAE Systems sells warplanes, warships, military vehicles, shells and bullets. The company was once described by former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook as “having the back door key to Number 10”. That door is a short walk across St James’ Park from its Mayfair offices.

BAE Systems’ third largest customer (after the US and UK governments) is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom, for all its oil wealth, remains a comparative minnow globally in terms of the size of its economy. Yet it has more UK-made warplanes available to its air force than the RAF – warplanes supplied by BAE Systems. Since 2015, BAE Systems has made some £15 billion of military sales to the Saudis.

Over-riding arms exports controls

It should not have been making these sales at all. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a brutal war in neighbouring Yemen, which has seen casualties in the tens of thousands. UK-made Typhoon and Tornado warplanes built by BAE Systems, and Paveway IV bombs made in the UK by US arms company Raytheon, have played a central role in the war.  The bombardment has destroyed dozens of schools and hospitals. While a small number of people and companies get rich off the proceeds, the conflict has caused death and serious injury on a massive scale, and has been accompanied by widespread famine and a cholera epidemic. Imperial history is, it seems, repeating itself.

In theory, sales of weapons to countries that might use them against civilians are prohibited by UK arms export controls. In practice, many of these supposed controls might as well not exist.

One reason for this is that the UK Government is not a simple arbiter of arms export rules. It views arms exports as a key source of influence, money and power. It runs a 130-strong team of civil servants, the Defence and Security Organisation, that is devoted to arms export promotion, and works with arms companies at the highest level to make these arms deals happen. Ministers will resist any attempt to hold them accountable, as they did when CAAT successfully took the case against arming Saudi Arabia to the Court of Appeal.

The personal connections and large sums of money involved in arms deals inevitably lead to concerns about corruption. When the Serious Fraud Office was investigating a previous Saudi arms deal, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, put a stop to it, citing security concerns –to avoid, as he put it, “blood on the streets” of London. Yet this decision clearly did not make the lives of those who live in Sana’a or Hodeidah in Yemen any safer and, it could easily be argued, did not make London any safer either.

In the case of Yemen, arms trading has led directly to war, to famine, to epidemic, adversely affecting the security of millions. This is a pattern repeated time and again, whether it is the Western-made arsenals amassed by Gadaffi’s brutal regime in Libya falling into the hands of murderous armed groups; weapons shipments to the Balkans being diverted to Islamic State; or the wars and subsequent insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The manufacture and sale of weapons can certainly not be said to be promoting security.

Rethinking security after empire

It is time to think again about what security means to each of us. It has to be based on ensuring that populations have access to the basics that make life possible: sustainably grown food, clean water, healthcare, protection from a changing climate and natural disasters, access to education. The logic of militarism makes it seem like making these available to everyone would mean a massive transfer of wealth from “rich” to “poor”. But right now wealth transfer is working the other way.

As governments squander their nations’ funds on expensive weapons systems purchased from western arms companies, they steal from their most marginalised citizens. When western governments manipulate their own populations to expand their military and policing spend[RR1] , or turn a blind eye to the depravity of dictators to whom they want to sell fast jets, they make it harder for citizens to shape their nations’ choices. This behaviour makes the assertion of human rights seem like an empty promise, when such rights are in fact what everyone needs to feel secure. It leads to populist complaints about support for refugees and foreign aid provided to people from the very countries destroyed by UK bombs.

The world is nevertheless gradually waking up from the nightmares of racist colonialism. As the Movement for Black Lives has shown, there is an appetite to end the logic by which people can be excluded and harmed with impunity on the basis of their race or national origin. Demands to defund the police and military are intended not to diminish security but to improve it: to stop people being killed, and to focus funding on the areas that lead to peace and prosperity for everyone, not just a privileged few.

As a nation we need to give as much attention to dialogue and negotiation as we have to drone strikes and manoeuvre warfare. This can only be done by supporting the rights and welfare of ordinary citizens, instead of the vanity and lust for power of dictators and demagogues.

It is time to end the dangerous and deadly delusion that the world can be well governed through the use of force ordered by unaccountable potentates in London or Washington. Real security and self-determination must be available to everyone.

There are few statues raised to the lives that have been lost to centuries of violence of empire and colonialism. We need to make sure their memorial is better than fading monuments of bronze and concrete: it needs to be a just world, and a lasting peace.


Kirsten Bayes works as the Local Outreach Coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade. She is also Vice Chair of Nuclear Information Service, and a Trustee and Vice Chair of Reading Pride. She has previously worked in industry, and as a university lecturer.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: CAAT. Arms trade protester calls on the UK to stop providing arms to Saudi Arabia.

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Written by Kirsten Bayes

I am the Local Outreach Coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade. I am also Vice Chair of Nuclear Information Service, and a Trustee and Vice Chair of Reading Pride.
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