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Whitehall Has Been Arming The World And Fuelling Conflict For 50 Years

UK aircraft and UK bombs have been central to the bombardment, which, according to Save the Children, has left Yemen "teetering on the edge of famine." The situation is dire, but the government's response has been to evade and ignore it.
Łukasz SzczepaÅski via Getty Images

Last weekend, 150 innocent people were killed when Saudi-led forces bombed a funeral in Yemen. It was yet another a horrific tragedy in an 18-month bombing campaign that has killed more than 10,000 people and destroyed vital infrastructure, including schools and hospitals.

UK aircraft and UK bombs have been central to the bombardment, which, according to Save the Children, has left Yemen "teetering on the edge of famine." The situation is dire, but the government's response has been to evade and ignore it.

In response to the most recent assault, Boris Johnson Tweeted his concerns (with no mention of those that had been killed), but his department has insisted it will not consider ending arms exports until the Saudi dictatorship had been entrusted to investigate itself for war crimes.

As the death toll in Yemen increases, and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, the UK's biggest arms company, BAE Systems, has began negotiations to sell even more fighter jets to the Saudi forces. Unfortunately, they are being helped every step of the way by UK government Ministers and civil servants. It is almost certain to be on the agenda later this month when Liam Fox is expected to visit Riyadh.

It's not the first time Whitehall has put arms sales ahead of human rights, in reality it has been promoting them as a matter of policy for the last 50 years.

New data, compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade, (CAAT) reveals the extent of government support for the industry. We have been through Freedom of Information requests, meeting minutes, and lots more to compile the largest data set of its kind. The picture it paints is one of cosy meetings, lobbying, influence and collusion.

Central to this is the Department for International Trade's Defence and Security Organisation (DSO). The unit, originally established in 1966, exists to promote arms exports around the world.

The focus on maximising sales was made clear right from the start. The report that recommended its creation cautioned that "the more often an arms sale is ruled out for reasons of strategic export policy the more pointless it will be to employ valuable staff to sell arms."

Heads of the department were briefed on the importance of pushing sales, and told "we must exploit markets wherever this is possible... we should be clear in our own minds that where no positive reason exists for not selling arms the directive requires that we do all we can to sell them."

Right from the start the focus was on securing sales to the Middle East, with Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular buying large quantities of UK weapons. Following the Iranian revolution, and the breakdown in UK-Iran relations, Saudi Arabia firmly cemented its status as the UK's largest buyer.

Throughout the 1980s the government continued in its role in pushing and promoting the industry. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, played a central role in securing a fighter jet deal with Saudi Arabia that would ultimately be worth £42 billion.

The deal, known as the Al-Yamamah deal, became the subject of a Serious Fraud Office corruption investigation. The potentially embarrassing investigation was cancelled by Tony Blair for political reasons, a move which was very quickly followed by the announcement of another major aircraft deal worth billions of pounds.

David Cameron continued the long-standing policy, with visits to Saudi Arabia and UAE being made to push for arms sales. In 2014, Prince Charles was enlisted to visit the Saudi regime, where he performed a sword dance at a BAE Systems sponsored event to secure further fighter jet sales.

The government doesn't just work as a middleman between arms companies and buyers. It also plays a central role in organising events like the DSEI arms fair, which happens in London every two years. These bring the world's largest arms companies together with some of the most oppressive regimes.

CAAT's data shows that Public servants, including government ministers, have amassed thousands of hours of meetings with arms company reps.

Many of the biggest arms manufacturers also sit on high-level advisory bodies that give them direct access to Ministers and senior civil servants. This has allowed the companies a great degree of access and an immense influence over decision-making.

The drive to secure arms sales has seen the government routinely approving exports to some of the most abusive dictatorships in the world. At present almost two thirds of UK arms exports are going to the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being by far the largest buyer.

None of this is inevitable. If Ministers such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson want to help secure peace in Yemen then it will take more than just a concerned Tweet. It requires the end of a foreign policy that has seen governments of all political colours pushing arms and fueling conflicts around the world.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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