Johann Hari: Selling weapons - or selling out?

Of the 14 countries in Africa where there is conflict, Britain has sold arms to ten of them
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Emmanuel Jal first held an AK47 when he was seven years old, and he first killed a man when he was 10. When I met him in London this week - now in his mid-20s - he spoke with a quiet, brittle calm about his life as a child soldier. "After my mother died, I joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and fought for them. There are no happy memories of that time - everything was just violence, trauma, war," he explains with watery eyes. "Guns were everywhere. We were taught to kill instead of being taught to read and write."

But he stressed that this is not just another African horror story. This is a parable - and the lesson is for us. "Every single one of those guns was supplied by the outside world. Nobody in Sudan manufactured them."

They came - directly or indirectly - from the five countries that make up the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, China, France, Russia and - yes - Britain. "Why did the world make it possible for children to kill children with your guns and your bullets?" Emmanuel asks. "Why are you still doing it?"

When you need to look to the Hollywood Hills for moral guidance, you know you're in trouble - but the movie The Lord of War, released this week, is a must-see polemic against the uncontrolled, anarchic trade in weapons in which Britain stands as the number two supplier.

In a stunning opening sequence, the camera follows a bullet on its journey from being manufactured in a factory in a leafy Western suburb to entering the skull of an African child-soldier. Emmanuel found this hard to watch: "I saw where those bullets ended up. Many times." Yuri Orlov - played by Nicholas Cage - captures the amorality of the world's barely-regulated arms industry when he says: "There are 550 million small arms in circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?"

Tony Blair promised us "the toughest arms regulations in the world" back in the dreamy days of 1997. But only last month, in the heart of London, there was an arms fair - paid for with your tax money and mine - offering cluster bombs, stun guns and leg irons for sale. The happy shoppers included representatives from Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Indonesia, Libya and several African countries sucked into the war in Congo that has killed three million people in four years.

Of the 14 countries in Africa where there is a conflict, Britain has sold arms to 10 of them. A few months ago, representatives of Amnesty International picked up a stray bullet in blood-soaked Uganda and took it back for analysis. It turned out to have been manufactured in Cheshire.

This summer, Blair provided us with an unusually blatant example of how governments routinely trade off human rights against corporate profit. The Government spent months secretly negotiating the largest arms deal in history: a £40bn clincher to sell Typhoon jet fighters to the House of Saud. They knew these corrupt dictators routinely torture any of their subjects who have the cheek to call for democracy or women's rights. But the Defence Secretary, John Reid, met Prince Naif - the man in charge of Saudi Arabia's secret police - to hear the Saudi royal family's conditions nonetheless. They wanted two refugees from the Saudi tyranny who made it to Britain to be deported. Blair and Reid have reportedly agreed. What's a few asylum-seekers when you've got contracts to negotiate?

The problem is not simply that we allow arms suppliers to the poor and tyrannical to operate in this country; it is much worse. The Government actively lavishes cash and political energy on them. Arms suppliers receive subsidies topping £990m per year from your taxes - enough to build 10 hospitals.

The Government justifies this by saying the defence industry is a major employer in this country. There's only one problem with this: the Ministry of Defence's own statistics show it isn't true. They found there are 60,000 jobs sustained by military exports, less than 0.2 per cent of Britain's workforce - roughly equivalent to the staff in Britain's kebab shops. A York University study found that shifting the arms suppliers' subsidies to retraining could replace all of these jobs, plus some.

But Tony Blair is not inclined to question corporate propaganda at the best of times. And in this case, the Ministry of Defence is so enmeshed with BAE Systems and other arms suppliers that it's hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

The body that regulates the Civil Service, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, recently made an unprecedented public expression of concern at the sheer number of people who flit between the Ministry of Defence and the contractors who supply it. It is routine for ministers and civil servants to head straight onto the payroll of the arms suppliers they have just been "regulating". There is no evidence of direct corruption, but it creates a climate where subsidies for arms suppliers seem like common sense: they are Good Chaps like us. It creates a climate where, as Robin Cook said in his 2003 autobiography, "I never once knew No 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace."

So Blair refuses to see there is an alternative to scattering British weapons to the jails run by the Saud crime family and the villages of Uganda.

The first, and most simple, step is to take arms suppliers off welfare. Make them pay their own way like every other business in Britain. Many will go bust, as (say) uneconomic kebab shops do every day. With government help, they will find jobs elsewhere.

The second is to pursue much more vigorously the international arms trade treaty proposed by Amnesty International. It would simply require all signatories to sell weapons only to democratic countries with decent human rights records. It is designed to kill the excuse proffered by every defender of arms deals: if we don't do it, somebody else will. Already, every country in the EU - including Britain - has expressed support. So why not an international summit? Why not agitate to turn the rhetoric into reality?

Of course, it's easy to jeer that this treaty is a naive liberal delusion. Cynics said exactly the same thing about the landmines treaty when it was first proposed. Who is going to sign? Don't you realise how much money is made from landmines? But in 1997, it was ratified, and today no country on earth openly trades in landmines, and deaths are falling every year. Is it beyond the wit of human beings to do the same with the weaponry fuelling war in Africa and tyranny across the world?

Emmanuel doesn't think so. He knows he was one of the lucky ones; he made it out, and today he is Africa's most famous hip-hop artist. "But I know there are lots of people like me who didn't make it," he says softly. "And while we continue having an unregulated arms industry, which is all about greed, there will be many, many more. I do not believe nice people will allow this to continue. How could they?"