Focus: The Arms Trade - Selling death in the suburbs

Surrey is hosting the UK's largest ever arms fair, yet Robin Cook says we have an ethical foreign policy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
'It's just like the Ideal Homes Exhibition, except that you can't wander in without an official invitation," reflected one of Britain's leading defence industry executives. He was talking (defen- sively, of course) about the UK's largest ever arms fair, which will be held barely a rocket-propelled grenade launch away from the temporary home of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the exclusive Wentworth Estate in Surrey.

Though the 83-year-old general, who faces extradition proceedings to Spain later this month for human rights abuses, has not been invited, representatives from some of the world's most oppressive regimes will be attending the event in Chertsey.

Last week there was a mass protest by human rights organisations when it emerged that the Ministry of Defence had invited an official delegation from Indonesia to the fair. But a list of guests, given to the Independent on Sunday, reveals that many representatives of other "suspect" countries are also invited. The 18,000-strong list, compiled by the Government and the organisers Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), includes at least 30 countries classed as having repressive regimes and/or torturous states by Amnesty International. Defence representatives and London-based military attaches from such countries as Algeria, Angola, Morocco, the Yemen, China, Syria and Zimbabwe will be there.

These countries' top brass, with their polished military braids and shades, will be mixing with marketing and sales people from nearly 1,000 arms companies selling goods ranging from smart missiles to tanks, guns and countless other weapons of destruction. Many of them are British, including some of our most established companies, such as Marconi and British Aerospace.

Human rights organisations say the arms fair casts a shadow over the Government's ethical foreign policy. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, continues to insist that Labour has a "firm commitment" not to sell arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or external aggression.

Yet Angola, which has long been in a state of civil war between the former Marxist government and Unita rebels and has had many of its people maimed by landmines, will be at Chertsey. Syria, too, which is constantly criticised by Amnesty International, will be sending its representatives. Its ruler, President Assad, has been involved in brutally repressing opponents, and it also provides a safe haven for some of the most notorious Palestinian terror groups.

China continues to cause concern among the world's human rights lobby because of its repression of dissidents and occupation of Tibet. It, too, will have a Chertsey delegation.

"I am shocked," said Rachel Harman from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. "This list sounds suspect and frightening. It seems as though the exhibition organisers are taking matters into their own hands and, as far as the arms trade is concerned, it's going to be business as usual.

"It is quite obvious the Government would rather accept assurances from a regime like Indonesia about arms use than hear the concerns of their own people," Ms Harman added.

The Chertsey fair highlights how closely connected the defence industry and the Government are - and it also highlights how much trade is done in arms. Although the exhibition is being run by DSEi, it is sponsored by the MoD and will combine the former Royal Navy and British Army Equipment Exhibition, Battlefield Systems International and International Maritime Defence Exhibition. Britain's defence industry earns about pounds 5bn a year in exports and supports 350,000 jobs, of which 30,000 depend directly on exports.

Marconi, for instance, which has many subsidiary companies throughout the UK, North America and Europe, employs 40,000 people and boasts a turnover in excess of pounds 4bn. Its satellite and radar systems are sold throughout the US, Europe, Australia and the Middle and Far East, but its unique selling point is the degree of accuracy from its range of smart missiles, especially its Brimstone anti-tank air-launched missile.

"We don't export without the permission of Her Majesty's Government and we follow HMG's policy, which we believe is an ethical policy," Marconi Electronic Systems says.

British Aerospace, which does business with over 70 countries - many in the defence sector - has come under fire for selling Hawk trainer jets to Indonesia. Again, the company is quick to point out that all exports are done with the guidance of the Government. "We do not run fast and loose. We rely on the Government to make decisions on customer countries and we have to give undertakings and seek undertakings from government departments," a spokesman said.

The Labour MP and human rights campaigner Ann Clwyd, who sits on a select committee that examines strategic arms exports, believes the Government should re-examine its arms policy. "Quite simply, we should not be selling arms to countries that have bad human rights records. You cannot monitor the end use of arms once they have been sold. British-made equipment is being used against students in Jakarta, and Hawk jet fighters were used in an extremely intimidating manner over East Timor.

"At least this Government is publishing annual reports, although we would like more information," added Ms Clwyd, who may well go to the four-day event in Chertsey in her familiar role at arms fairs as a demonstrator.

A spokesman for Jane's Publishing Group dismissed criticism of the fair, adding: "This is the largest ever exhibition in Britain and it will display the global nature of the defence industry - even American aircraft sold to the Saudis contain Israeli parts.

"Britain's defence industry does not make money selling guns and ammunition and the bulk of its exports are integrated multi-million-pound systems."

The MoD invitations were sent to senior official delegates of other nations as a "matter of protocol" and DSEi says its invitations were sent largely to other countries' commercial and trade sectors.

"There are many interpretations of defence equipment and we believe we have a solid export policy. An export licence is not issued until everyone is satisfied that it will not be used for internal aggression, external aggression or affect regional stability," a Government spokesman said.

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