As long as arms promotion is seen as the business of government there is no prospect of arms control.
Acceptance speech – Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)
Mister Deputy Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament, Your excellencies, Fellow laureates, Dear friends,
It is a great honour to accept the Right Livelihood Award on behalf of Campaign Against Arms Trade. The Award is a valued tribute to the work of thousands of people in the UK, whose collective action has managed to expose, challenge and impede the arms trade since we began our work nearly 40 years ago.
The devastating impact of UK weapons sales
The trail of destruction wrought by weapons produced in the UK extends beyond the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. It reaches from Gaza to Sri Lanka, from Egypt to East Timor.
The UK spent four years promoting weapons to Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Then in 2011, it bombed the tanks that just weeks before it had been preparing to upgrade. In the same year, it continued to promote and sell weapons to Egypt, even though 846 people were killed in the brutal suppression of protests.
In Bahrain, the government’s crackdown on activists continues to this day, but the UK still bolsters the regime with weapons sales and the message of support such sales send. British weapons were used to kill civilians when Israel attacked Gaza in 2008. Yet the UK government has continued to arm the country ever since. In recent weeks, we have again counted the cost of those sales in human lives.
Then we look to the UK’s biggest weapons customer: Saudi Arabia. One of the most repressive regimes in the world, in 2011 Saudi Arabia deployed armoured vehicles made in the UK to help suppress the democratic uprising in Bahrain. Yet just last month, Prime Minister David Cameron visited the regime in person to try to secure more weapons sales.
Attempting to manage public perception
That visit shows us that our governments are not just allowing the sales but actively promoting them. How do they justify pouring public resources into promoting arms sales to authoritarian regimes?
We’re told that our arms controls are the strictest in the world, that all we need is an international treaty to bring everyone else up to our standard. But our standard is nothing to aspire to. It is to sell to almost anyone who will buy, be they dictator, human rights abuser or NATO warmonger.
On paper EU arms controls aren’t that bad. They say that we won’t sell weapons if there’s a clear risk they’ll be used for internal repression, or for external aggression. If these rules were actually followed, we probably wouldn’t have much of an arms trade. But the rules aren’t followed.
The fact is that no arms controls, or treaty, will work while our governments are actively promoting weapons sales around the world. The UK government has an office of 150 people dedicated to selling arms, far more than the staff they employ for promoting any other industry.
We’re told that the arms industry is essential for jobs and the economy. In the UK, the government uses grossly inflated and out of date jobs figures—it knows this is the only way it could rally public support. Yet how many other export sectors receive a £ 700 million subsidy from the taxpayer, over £ 9,000 per job? We know that far more jobs could be created in the vibrant green energy sector if public funds were redirected.
We’re told that we need to export arms for our national security. Yet the UK sold weapons to Argentina weeks before the Falklands War. It sold arms to Saddam Hussein months before the First Gulf War. It actively courted Gaddafi weeks before going to war with him last year.
Ordinary people know this is wrong—only 6% in the UK thought it was right to arm Gaddafi. You can either promote weapons or you can promote human rights: you can’t do both.
Despite being small in the face of the arms trade, we do make a difference
Unlike the arms trade, we do not have huge resources; Campaign Against Arms Trade has just a few staff members. What we do have is the energy and commitment of thousands of people who know the arms trade is wrong, are prepared to take action to stop it, and who fund much of our work with their donations.
It can feel like we are facing Goliath, so how do we make a difference? By creative campaigning. In October, we won our campaign to end our National Gallery’s support for the arms trade. For six years it had regularly hosted arms dealers and their clients in one of the most prestigious venues in the UK. With artists and activists, we took back the Gallery’s space to create our own artworks. Playful interventions in the spirit of public art engaged support from the art world and persuaded the gallery to end its ties with the deadly arms business.
How do we make a difference? By uncovering and communicating information. Information is power and the arms trade doesn’t want us to have it, so we monitor trade press, obtain government documents through the Freedom of Information Act and analyse export data to bring this secretive industry into the light.
We are pioneering new data applications, which enable dense government and industry data to be searched in an intuitive way: we are making information about what is being sold and to whom open to public scrutiny.
Together with media work, online actions, social media messaging and political lobbying, we have shaped public debate to challenge UK weapons exports in the wake of the Arab Spring. We have named and shamed the companies that are arming Bahrain; and those that touted weapons to Gaddafi in 2010.
How do we make a difference? By working with others across the world. In 1999, massive bribes were paid to ensure that South Africa bought Swedish and British planes at more than twice the price of their competitors. Campaign Against Arms Trade worked with South African campaigners and the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (Svenska Freds) to expose what was going on and highlight the devastating impact this deal had on public spending and democracy in South Africa.
With others in the European Network Against the Arms Trade, we make sure that the Annual General Meetings of key arms companies are dominated by questions of corruption and ethics. We gain inspiration from each other’s stories of action: from the Swedish campaigners who shut down an arms factory for a day and from the German campaign to stop the secretive deal of 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia.
How do we make a difference? By engaging public support to challenge arms fairs. By harnessing the instinctive, widespread disgust with arms fairs where weapons are touted to whoever will buy, we succeeded in getting Reed Elsevier, the owner of one of the world’s largest arms fairs to sell up. The campaign garnered support from many different quarters and used diverse tactics. Since Reed also owns the London Book Fair, published authors spoke out; since he owns a medical journal, the editorial board called for an end to the company’s profits from the arms trade—and two thousand academics signed a petition in their support.
Activists began a weekly picket at their offices and targeted their Annual General Meeting while campaign allies sold their shareholdings in the company. Together we built a tidal wave of support to show that the arms industry is not a legitimate business that meant Reed could no longer afford to stay involved.
How do we make a difference? By using legal challenges. On several occasions, we have taken on the government and arms companies in the courts—including challenging the government’s decision to stop corruption investigations into BAE System’s deals with Saudi Arabia. As a result, the name of BAE Systems has become indelibly associated with corruption. Its fear of legal action means it now avoids one of the key taxpayer subsidies it used to enjoy—government insurance to underwrite its deals.
For us, a small organisation taking on the massive arms trade, receiving the Right Livelihood Award is a great privilege. Arms companies do all they can to ensure that their interests hold sway in the media and with politicians. This award helps us amplify what ordinary people want instead. It gives international recognition to the persistent work of determined campaigners; it gives profile to the way the arms trade perpetuates conflict and human rights abuses; it gives us an opportunity to share what has worked and our aims for the future.
Next year, the world’s arms industry plans to descend on London for a huge arms fair, which will bring together tyrants, human rights abusers, countries from both sides of conflicts, and companies pushing the latest killing technology. We will bring all our resources to bear on exposing and resisting it so that it can no longer take place.
Just as we have transformed UK arms export data to put its information in the hands of the public, we plan to do the same for other data sets, including EU arms exports. By exposing what is going on, we can enable people to challenge the arms trade more effectively.
At a time of massive cuts to public services, it is vital that the huge financial support taxpayers give to the arms trade is questioned. With the award money, we will invest in campaigning to highlight the positive impact a move away from funding arms could have. Putting public spending on arms to work on tackling climate change instead would be a much needed boost for the economy. We would be contributing towards people’s security, rather than threatening it with further arms proliferation.
The arms trade is an evil of our time. It fuels death, destruction and human rights abuses. But it is not a fact of nature. It exists because of decisions governments make, and they can decide differently. We can choose to restrain weapons sales, not promote their proliferation; we can choose to put human rights before arms company profits; we can choose to promote industries that support life, not those based on death.
In the words of Eamonn McCann, who stood trial for the part he played in shutting down his local arms company: “We believe that one day the world will look back on the arms trade as we look back today on the slave trade and wonder how it came about that such evil could abound in respectable society.”
Campaign Against Arms Trade
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Phone: +44 20 7281 02 97