You don’t need to be a genius to know that generally speaking, weapons equal death. The annual Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition (DSEI) was hosted at the ExCel centre in London earlier this month, guaranteeing the glitz and glamour of a fair that caters for technologically innovative and efficient murder.
While David Cameron travelled to refugee camps near the border of Syria, lambasting the atrocities he saw around him, his government hosted the world’s largest arms fair in the heart of London. With the guests including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel, the UK Government must take its share of the responsibility of the human cost of supplying the arsenals of these regimes, and yes, that includes helping refugees.
The hypocrisy of UK Government policy in relation to the arms trade is nothing new. In 2006 Tony Blair quashed investigations by the serious fraud office into the alleged corruption of the Al-Yamamah arms and oil deal with Saudi Arabia, which had been set up during Thatcher’s administration. In 2011, during the height of the Arab Spring, the UK government was kind enough to export potassium and sodium fluoride to Bashar Al Assad, which are both used in the production of chemical weapons which would later be used against civilians.
In 2012, MPs carried out an inquiry into how the BP and defence giants BAE systems were involved in the loan of £35 million of taxpayers money to the admirable humanitarian Robert Mugabe. Only six months into 2014 £63.2 million worth of arms export licences had been granted to states that had previously been on a blacklist for systematic human rights atrocities. I’m sure that the realisation that UK Government armed both Iran and Iraq during the Gulf War during the 1980s comes as no surprise. Nor is there any shock at the fact that the British firms, with government approval also supplied Sarin—one of the most important ingredients used in chemical weapons—to Syria during civil war.
Quite often when we discuss atrocity, or chemical weapons such as Sarin, it is done in a way which is quite clinical and detached from their immediate and physical effects. For those that don’t know, Sarin is a chemical agent that inhibits our enzymes from breaking down neurotransmitters (those clever little things which mediate the signals around your body). Because the body can’t break down these neurotransmitters, the same signals are sent over and over in rapid fire.
Within seconds of being exposed to this odourless and tasteless gas, these signals go into overdrive, meaning that whatever your body initially does to deal with the foreign gas repeats in quicker succession. That means you cannot stop your eyes from watering, you cannot stop your lungs from coughing into convulsions, and you have no control as your stomach empties itself of bile and would be entirely powerless to do anything as your bowels give out. This can quickly move into convulsions and paralysis, and with enough exposure, you could be dead in ten minutes.
Sarin takes away the control you have over your body and nervous system. That’s right, the UK Government doesn’t seem to mind our domestic firms selling this stuff. Considering the impacts Sarin has, I’m sure we can all appreciate the irony of David Cameron’s kindness in dealing with the so called “swarm” of refugees in Europe. As much as I might wish it, the UK’s track record hasn’t improved. Despite widespread condemnation of the actions of maniacal dictators across the world, arms sales continue. By March this year, the UK government had issued arms licences that are worth more than £5.2 billion.
What makes the situation slightly more difficult to grapple with is the level of state intervention within the arms trade. The arms sector is one of the most heavily subsidised areas of the UK economy with estimates sitting between £450 – 930 million per year. What seems most bizarre is the willingness to invest in arms, which means by default the state is not only happy but willing to sponsor murder. Amnesty International estimated that around 85 per cent of the killings they document are a direct result of guns, with a further 60 per cent of all human rights abuses being directly related to the arms trade.
In the context of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, it becomes impossible to ignore the intrinsic link between arms sales and the systematic dehumanisation, brutalisation, and murder of human beings globally. If anything, when we see refugees they are after all, human beings like the rest of us—with families, hopes, dreams and fears. Our humanity should extend beyond borders, crossings and checkpoints. It should be a reminder that refugees are not just running the risks of drowning in the Mediterranean for the sake of it. When we see what is reality for so many other human beings, such as the haunting images of Aylan Kurdi, our hands are not clean.
Refugees are running to survive, and more often than we would like to admit, they are running from the same regimes that the British arms industry has funded, equipped, and armed. They are also running from regimes that have been able to reinforce their false legitimacy through violent power, and it is the same violent power that the UK Government has been happy to supply.