How the UK’s Defence Industry Continues to Defy Popular Criticism

At the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition, the atmosphere was jovial. Men in cargo trousers and polo shirts hovered around the light arms stands, sipping G&Ts. Senior military officials, their badges flashing on their lapels, laughed and joked with top brass from other nations’ defence forces. If not for the extra security and the blacked-out Mercedes and Maybachs outside, you could have been walking into any other expo at the London ExCel Centre.

Inside, too, were the same enthusiastic company representatives, showcasing their newest and most impressive technologies to a ready and eager audience. But these were no ordinary products. There were tanks, rocket launchers, attack helicopters. A queue of excited businessmen in suits waited their turn to play with the rocket-propelled grenade launcher and its accompanying virtual reality screen, encouraging you to fire the RPG towards an enemy base and watch it go bang. In a country with some of the most stringent gun laws in the world, passersby could casually pick up and play with the latest pistols, sub-machine guns and assault rifles.

Wandering around the world’s largest arms fair, it would be easy to forget that these guns, missiles and bombs are being used to kill civilians, all around the world. 

Outside, the protesters certainly had not forgotten. The celebratory tone at the fair was in stark contrast to this very public backlash against the British arms trade. Some described the event as “disgusting”; others spoke of their determination to keep up their demonstration despite already racking up court dates in the process. All in all, more than 100 people were arrested throughout the three-day event. 

“A lot of the policing we saw [against peaceful protesters] was ridiculous and over-the-top, actually quite violent and repressive,” says Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade. “It was completely unjustified by the circumstances… almost like the Conservative government would be embarrassed by such a protest because many of their allies who are coming in would never tolerate such a thing in their countries.” 

Pubic disapproval for some of these allies – as well as the industry as a whole – is widespread. The capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan told the arms fair’s organisers to “get out of London”, while a 2017 poll found that only a quarter of British people believed their government should actively promote the sale of domestically produced arms to foreign governments. The vast majority deemed it “unacceptable” to sell arms to Saudi Arabia (62%), Russia (70%). China (63%), Pakistan (68%) any country that violates international human rights law (71%) or even non-democracies (60%).

Despite this, the UK government has continued to sell a third of its arms to countries on human rights watchlists, most of which had a presence at the arms fair. The stands reflected a whos-who of high-profile human rights violations, international law-breakers and controversial conflicts, often situated in close proximity with no sense of irony. 

Pakistan and India’s stands, for example, displayed their brightly coloured missiles and bombs within spitting distance of each other. Saudi Arabia’s defence industry (SAMI) proudly showed off its products while elsewhere in the hall, both its neighbour Bahrain and mortal enemy Israel showcased heavy weaponry, alongside private British company BAE and US defence contractor, Raytheon. 

From an economic standpoint, it makes sense for London to host an event like this. Westminster is keen to promote the UK arms industry, which accounts for 3.5% of GDP and directly provides 135,000 jobs domestically. The UK is the world’s second-largest arms exporter, generating £14bn worth of sales in 2018 alone. 

Of course, there are some restrictions. The UK government can’t sell weapons directly to countries placed under international sanctions, which theoretically rules out potential customers like Russia, Myanmar, Libya, Venezuela and Iran. However, loopholes are exploited all the time. Military hardware that can be deemed “dual-use” gets a free pass, allowing the UK to continue furnishing the repressive Libyan government with military-grade surveillance gear. Earlier this year, a UN investigation revealed that UK company Veripos used an intermediary in Singapore to sell technology to the Myanmar military, which is currently involved in an ongoing genocide that has left tens of thousands of Rohingyas dead and created a mass refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. 

Meanwhile, despite a partial embargo blocking sales of “any equipment which might be used for internal repression” to China, it emerged in June that Hong Kong police shutting down pro-democracy, anti-China protests were using rubber bullets and tear gas manufactured in the UK. There is evidence, too,  to suggest that the UK sold Turkey the phosphorus is used in chemical weapons attacks on Kurds in Northeast Syria in October. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, before his leadership of the Conservative Party, even lobbied for the sale of bomb parts to Saudia Arabia in the days following a lethal airstrike that killed 14 Yemeni civilians. He claimed that, if the UK didn’t, someone else would. Privately, some industry insiders echo this argument, arguing that exporting British expertise along with the weapons improves accuracy and helps reduce casualties. Certainly, the Saudi Arabian presence at DSEI did little to inspire confidence in the Gulf Kingdom’s professional capabilities in this regard: on the SAMI stand, a very young representative in a very expensive suit was vague on technical details but excitedly asked, “do you want to see the big bombs?”.

Those critical of the UK arms trade are unimpressed by this take, however. Patrick Wilkin of Amnesty International describes the decision to continue licensing arms sales to Saudia Arabia and its coalition members as “appallingly, shockingly irresponsible”. By propping up the country’s air force “despite a wealth of evidence of incredibly serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”, he says, the UK has helped facilitate widespread civilian casualties and the deliberate destruction of vital infrastructure such as water wells.

The Supreme Court agrees. In June, the Campaign Against Arms Trade won a landmark case preventing the UK government from approving any new licences for military equipment for sale to Saudi Arabia, on the basis that this was unlawful. This was an extremely significant step, but as Wilkin points out, doesn’t cover existing sales contracts. 

“It is a partial victory,” he says. “We’re continuing to challenge the UK government on that one, because it seems completely illogical that the court could rule that the decision-making process wasn’t lawful, but that extant licences can continue to operate and shipments can continue to flow to Saudi Arabia.”  

What many people don’t realise, too, is that they may be inadvertently funding the arms trade with their own money. In the UK, employees alongside their employers contribute part of their salary to their pension pot each month. This money is then invested on their behalf by pension funds, with fund managers selecting the investments deemed to deliver the strongest returns. Very often, that includes the arms industry.

“The likelihood is that, unless they’re a really big company with their social responsibility concerns, they’re not that likely to look in a lot of detail at how responsibly the pension is invested,” explains Rachel Haworth, UK Policy Manager at ShareAction, a charity that campaigns for responsible investment. She says many pension funds invest passively, simply tracking the FTSE 100 rather than making an active call about where to entrust their money. Worse, a facet of the industry’s “problematic culture” is a tendency to dismiss the concerns of the very people whose money these funds manage.  

That’s not to say that individuals who object to their money financing the arms trade have no say in the matter. Under UK law, on written request, a pension fund must disclose the general sectors and top 20 companies they invest in, giving people a chance to raise objections or pressure their employer to change provider. You can also decide to switch to the pension company’s “ethical fund” (if they have one) – although as Haworth points out, while these are likely to exclude arms investments, the fund manager ultimately decides what constitutes “unethical”. 

From protests to legal action to divestment campaigns, pressure is mounting on the British arms trade. While campaigners agree that there’s still a long way to go (despite vowing to respect the Saudi ruling, for example, the UK government admitted in September to breaching the new rules three times in their first three months), CAAT’s Andrew Smith is optimistic about the future. Prominent political figures and parties are increasingly willing to take a stand, he says.  

“Historically, Labour governments and Conservative governments and Coalition governments would have set an identical policy on the arms trade, one of uncritical support for the Saudi regime and so on,” he says. “But that does seem to be changing. We’ve seen the Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats all taking a very strong line against arms sales. It has changed the political dynamic in parliament quite significantly.”

If these parties maintain their position on the issue beyond the upcoming General Election in the UK in December, this could create genuine political will to change one of the most prominent – and controversial – of any British industry.