05/11/2012 09:34 GMT | Updated 05/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Arms Sales - When Will Prime Ministers Ever Learn?

David Cameron says he will be arguing for human rights when he visits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman this week. The stronger message, however, will be of UK support and the government's willingness to do anything to promote UK arms company interests.

Here we go again - that was my first thought as I heard that prime minister David Cameron touring the Middle East supporting fighter jet sales. I have been campaigning against arms exports for over thirty years. Throughout this time there has been a UK government department dedicated to promoting arms sales. Originally called the Defence Sales Organisation it was set up in the Ministry of Defence by Labour defence secretary Denis Healey in 1966, it is now the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Whatever the name, the arms export unit's function has remained constant. Its staff, currently numbering about 150 paid for by us as taxpayers, are the day-to-day machinery that supports the high profile prime ministerial trips. The unit's been a focus for protests over the years - in Soho Square in the early days to Victoria Street now. The government-backed arms sales fairs used to be in Portsmouth and Aldershot, so CAAT was there. Now they are at the Excel Centre in London's Docklands. There's one planned for September 2013 and, if we don't stop it first, we will be there too.

That's what's so disappointing - that there is a need in 2012 to be making the same arguments against arms sales to repressive regimes that we did three decades ago. Why does the UK government continue making the same mistake in courting and arming repressive regimes? There was Galtieri in Argentina, who then invaded the Falkland Islands. Both Iran, which ran its worldwide procurement from London, and Iraq were supplied with UK military equipment during the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980's.

Something has changed there - the technology. I remember that, having found out that a high-ranking military delegation from Saddam's Iraq was present at the Farnborough arms fair in 1988, our press release had to be couriered around London by bike. Unfortunately, our efforts did not stop the continued UK-Iraq liaison and the rest is history. It is a history that some did not want to learn. As millions of us protested against the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair retaliated by asking what we would do to stop Saddam. Galling, as at least some of us on the march had long been campaigning against the support given to Saddam through the sales of military equipment. Doubly a cause for anger as Tony Blair was himself overlooking human rights abuses to continue to help private companies arm some truly dreadful regimes.

The 1997 Labour government's first foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, had long seen the danger of arms sales. He came to office promising to put ethics at the heart of his foreign policy. Just three months later he found that he could not. The previous Conservative government had licensed the export of Hawk jets and armoured vehicles to Suharto's Indonesia, despite the fact that such equipment was being used against the people of East Timor as well as protesters on the streets. Much licensed equipment was still in the UK in 1997, but Tony Blair quickly showed his loyalties lay with the arms companies and the deals went ahead. Ironically, Indonesia later ran out of money to pay for the equipment. The UK government's export insurance made sure the arms companies didn't lose out. The UK taxpayer paid with the current Indonesian government expected to make reimbursements.

Moving on, we come to the Arab Spring. Tony Blair had courted Gadaffi, then the UK found itself bombing Libya which, right up until then, had been a 'priority market' for UKTI DSO. Less than a year later, in March 2012, Libya, despite no stable government, was a 'priority market' again.

Throughout this, though, the crucial centre-piece for the arms companies and their government-backers has been Saudi Arabia. Margaret Thatcher signed the Al Yamamah deals in the mid-1980's. In 2006 Tony Blair scuppered the Serious Fraud Office investigation of the corruption allegations that had surrounded the deal almost from its inception. He was desperate to get Saudi Arabia to sign up to buy Eurofighter Typhoons. Now David Cameron is continuing the prime ministerial trend.

Ranked 161 out of 167 on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2011, Saudi Arabia is both a "priority market" for UKTI DSO as well as being listed as a "country of concern" on human rights grounds by the Foreign Office. Saudi Arabia has also got its feet right inside the Ministry of Defence. It pays for a little-known unit called the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Project which, in April 2012, employed 69 civilians and 44 military personnel in the UK, and 34 civilians and 48 military personnel in Saudi Arabia.

David Cameron says he will be arguing for human rights when he visits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman this week. The stronger message, however, will be of UK support and the government's willingness to do anything to promote UK arms company interests. It seems that nothing has been learnt from the past. I am just hoping the public outcry about the visit, including through the use of technologies unavailable in earlier decades, will make it increasingly difficult to justify such arms sales jaunts and the day-to-day promotion which underlies them.