In the UK, the arms trade is in the spotlight. As revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East challenge authoritarian regimes, they also challenge the UK government's approach to arms sales.
CAAT's 'This is NOT OK' campaign is a direct response to the UK government's oft-repeated mantra that it has a 'responsible' policy on arms sales: for example, it says it won't allow sales if there's a clear risk the equipment might be used for internal repression. Under this 'responsible' policy it has, in the last year, approved the supply of equipment including tear gas, crowd control ammunition and sniper rifles to Libya and Bahrain, even though both are authoritarian regimes with a well-documented record of human rights abuses. Armoured vehicles sold by the UK have been used against protesters in Libya. Our message is simple: This is NOT OK.
We've been saying this for a while. But now it's not just anti-arms trade activists asking tricky questions. As one correspondent to the Daily Telegraph commented: “SIR – Britain revoked licences to sell tear gas to Libya after Colonel Gaddafi’s regime had the temerity to use it. I have searched in vain for a use for tear gas other than for crowd control.” Last week an opinion poll reported that only 7% of people think the UK was right to sell arms to Libya.
Although the government has since revoked some licences (and the UN has approved an arms embargo) the most important question is how such licences were approved in the first place. Quite simply, these licences were approved because, whatever the government's policy says the government's practice is all about selling arms.
Unfortunately Libya is not a one-off: The UK routinely supplies regimes that have appalling human rights records, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia to Indonesia and Zimbabwe, to Israel and Sri Lanka. Arming tyrants and oppressors is business as usual for successive governments which have promoted the sale of arms and internal security equipment with virtually no discrimination.
The current government is no different - except that it has expressed worry that its predecessors were a little too squeamish and proclaimed it has “no embarrassment” about its plans to increase arms exports.
And unbelievably there was little embarrassment from the government when, in the midst of regional unrest and the brutal suppression of protest, the Prime Minister chose to go ahead with an arms promotion tour in the Middle East. At the same time, a large UK delegation were displaying their wares at IDEX, a major weapons fair in the region.
If the PM, a Ministerial sales team, and a demonstration team from the armed forces wasn't enough, an entire unit of civil servants is devoted to increasing arms sales. The UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) has 160 staff – while other export industry sectors have only 130 staff to support them all.
It is clear that the focus of UK Government policy is on promoting, not controlling, arms sales – and while this remains the case, a 'responsible' arms export policy is impossible.
This week CAAT took the comments of 4,000 people to David Cameron. Together with the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign we were there to say weapons sales to Gaddafi and to Bahrain were clearly not OK. But this is only the start.
In September, the government plans, once again, to support a massive arms fair in London. Last time round, in 2009, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on the guest list; Israel was exhibiting its 'battle-tested' weaponry and the Pakistan Ordnance Factory was advertising cluster bombs in its literature. The event organiser, Clarion Events, tried to fob protesters off with the assurance that 'it's all legal'. Our response is that this may be legal but This is NOT OK.
We'll be keeping the pressure on government, and using recent events to ask “is this what responsible arms exports look like?' We're calling for an end to the government's promotion of arms sales, and an end to the arms fair.
We'll be supporting local action against arms companies and mobilising to stop DSEi – through lobbying, public engagement and direct action.
And we'll be challenging those who use government support for the arms trade as a justification for their own involvement.
Throughout this year we'll continue to build our petition to say This is NOT OK http://www.caat.org.uk/not-ok which we'll use, alongside evidence of the impact of UK arms sales, to lobby decision-makers. We welcome contributions from the UK and around the world.