BRITAIN: Salesmen of death

June 12, 2002


LONDON — Soon after New Labour came to power in 1997, the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, announced an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. He said that the government “will not issue an (arms) export licence if there is a clearly identifiable risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country” or if there was a threat to “regional stability”.

However, from the day it took office, veiled by Cook's “ethical” nonsense, New Labour embraced the arms business. In his first few months as prime minister, Tony Blair approved 11 arms deals with General Suharto's genocidal regime in Indonesia under cover of the Official Secrets Act. He has since maintained Britain as the world's third biggest arms trader, selling more lethal weapons in New Labour's first year than the Tories. More than two-thirds of sales are to governments with appalling human rights records.

Britain's biggest customer is Saudi Arabia, the most extreme Islamic regime on earth, where apostates are beheaded. Women have no rights; it is illegal for a woman even to drive a car. Cherie Blair, who with Laura Bush, wife of the US president, denounced the “brutal oppression of women” in Afghanistan by the Taliban and demanded their emancipation, has remained silent on the medieval treatment of Saudi women in the spiritual home of al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia has most of the world's oil.

The results of an investigation by the National Audit Office into the £20 billion al Yamamah (the Dove) deal between the Saudi princes and the British arms industry, believed to be the biggest in history, were suppressed first by the Tories and, since 1997, by Labour. The reason is that the report almost certainly describes “commissions” paid on the sale of Tornado fighters — £15 million on one aircraft is said to have been the going rate.

Under Blair, taking his lead from Margaret Thatcher's obsession with the arms industry, sales of weapons and military equipment have become the most heavily subsidised sector of the UK economy apart from agriculture. This means that taxpayers underwrite loans-for-arms to dictators oppressing their people.

The argument that the government is “protecting jobs” is demolished by the writing-off of billions of pounds, which could create jobs in peace-time industries. This was how Hawk fighter-bombers were “sold” to the Suharto dictatorship.

One of the first things Robin Cook did when New Labour came to power was to fly out to Indonesia and shake the mass murderer's hand. Indonesia was then crushing the life out of East Timor, using British Aerospace's finest products: Hawk aircraft and Heckler and Koch machine guns. For two years, with the help of lobby journalists “briefed” by lying foreign office officials, Cook was able to deny that the Hawks were being used in East Timor — until the Indonesians grew tired of the subterfuge and made a fool of him by sending Hawks in menacing passes over Dili, the East Timorese capital.

The making and selling of arms is crucial to the post-September 11 “war on terrorism”, which is not a war on terrorism at all but a justification for the US to consolidate and extend its global supremacy. Indeed, most Anglo-American weapons go to client regimes that promote terrorism. Saudi Arabia, home of most of the September 11 hijackers and tutors of the Taliban, is the prime example.

Arms sales and the development of multi-billion dollar warplanes, ships and missile systems, have an essential place in the “global economy”. They invariably lead to an American economic “boom” or “recovery” which influences the economies of Europe and much of the world. In 1960, President Eisenhower called US capitalism a “military-industrial complex” powered by arms and other military-related contracts.

Forty cents in every dollar ends up with the Pentagon which, in the financial year 2001-02, will spend a record US$400 billion on its war machine. Not surprisingly, war ensures the industry's prosperity.

Following the Gulf War and the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, both American and British arms sales leapt. When the New York Stock Exchange re-opened after September 11, the stocks of arms companies were almost alone in showing an increase in value. Raytheon, the missile maker and contributor to New Labour, was one of them.

Tony Blair's close links with Israel — many of them forged by his friend, the deal-maker Michael Levy, whom he made Lord Levy — are described as “the government's tireless efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East”. The opposite is true. As on the Indian sub-continent, British arms policy has actually fanned the flames in a region in deepest crisis.

In the first 14 months of the Palestinian uprising against Israel's illegal military occupation — when the Palestinians' main weapon was the slingshot — the Blair government approved 230 export licences to Israel for arms and military equipment. The licence categories these covered included large-calibre weapons, ammunition, bombs and almost certainly vital parts for US-supplied helicopter gunships. These Apache gunships have been frequently on the news, firing missiles at civilian areas.

While British weapons and parts were being shipped to the Israeli military machine, Amnesty International investigators reported “human rights violations and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions which, over the past 18 months, have been committed daily, hourly, even every minute by the Israeli authorities against Palestinians”.

Foreign office mouthpieces, also known as junior ministers, routinely tell parliament that they have “an assurance that British equipment will not be used in the Occupied Territories”. This is clearly false. As reporters witnessed recently, Israeli armoured personnel carriers have a chassis made from British-supplied Centurion tanks. Business is business, and it never stops.

On September 11, at an arms fair in London's Docklands, there was not even a respectful silence in honour of the victims of the Twin Towers. The Israelis had a whole pavilion; one Israeli company, Rafael, was here to sell the Ministry of Defence the Gill-Spike anti-tank missile, a weapon distinguished by its history of use against civilians in Palestine and Lebanon.

At last year's Labour Party conference Blair, playing the Christian imperialist, promised “the most positive involvement” in Africa that would attack poverty and under-development and heal “a scar on the conscience of the world”. One of the main causes of poverty in Africa is the amount spent on arms by regimes offered a variety of enticements by Western business and governments.

Three months after the prime minister's heartfelt words, the value of British arms sales to Africa was revealed to be a record — four times that of the previous year. It was also disclosed that Blair had given his personal backing to the sale of a British-made military air traffic control system to Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries. The deal was worth £28 million to the arms firm, BAE Systems. This is just what is needed in a country so poor that half the population have no access to running water and children die from preventable diseases.

All over the world 24,000 people, mostly children, die from poverty every day. This is the true terrorism, and it is aided and abetted by politicians from rich, privileged and powerful countries who, in the cause of profit and feigning respectability, are salesmen of death. Their victims, and the rest of us, deserve better.

[Abridged from <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 5, 2002.
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