Dealing in death: the battle against the UK arms trade

The UK is a centre of the international arms trade. Despite moral and legal outcry, Cameron’s recent visit to Indonesia demonstrates the continuing political commitment to the industry. Barnaby Pace explores the case for and means of resisting the Government’s close ties with the international companies who profit from war. 

Barnaby Pace
27 April 2012

David Cameron’s arms selling trip to Indonesia demonstrates the cynical realities of the weapons market. It was not long ago that the Indonesian armed forces used UK Hawk jets to bomb civilians in East Timor. There are continuing human rights abuses in West Papua and elsewhere. Meanwhile military officers are rumoured to be receiving up to 40 per cent of the value of arms purchases in bribes. But these sales and the damage they cause can be stopped by ordinary people who make a stand.


The arms trade is the only business in the world that counts its profits in pounds and its losses in lives. The arms trade thrives on conflict and corruption is routine. Its products are not only intended to maim and kill but to generate profits; profits taken from state budgets that could otherwise be used on healthcare, education or dealing with the threats of climate change or resource depletion.

Arms exports from the UK are worth around £5bn every year with the largest customers over the last ten years being Saudi Arabia, the USA and India. But the statist terms in which the arms trade is normally explained only voice part of the story. The arms trade is composed of international companies, operating not to secure a nation but to profit from insecurity.

Despite the corporate status of arms companies, they still receive disproportionate state support. No other industry receives the same level of ministerial attention, with arms company executives frequently accompanying the Prime Minister on overseas trips - seemingly regardless of the local situation as long as there are sales to be made[i]. The UK’s export promotion body UKTI has more staff devoted to arms export promotion than to all other export sectors put together[ii]. Yet the economic benefits of the arms trade are vastly exaggerated. UK arms exports support around 55,000 jobs and make up 1.2% of the UK’s total exports but depend on a government subsidy conservatively estimated at £700 million per year, which works out to £12,700 per job every year. In the words of the Financial Times' Alan Beattie, “You can have as many arms export jobs as you are prepared to waste public money subsidising.”

The arms trade, including that of the UK, operates in something close to a legal vacuum. A South American group recently asserted, with good cause, that the international trade in bananas is more closely regulated than the trade in arms. The UK does have arms export regulations, which read well on paper - with mentions of the risks to human rights, internal repression and sustainable development - but these regulations are frequently ignored when perceived national interests are at stake. This is obvious in the UK’s largest arms customer, Saudi Arabia, a repressive and totalitarian state, involved in the violent repression of democratic protests both domestically and in neighbouring Bahrain - possibly using UK weaponry. Furthermore UK built Tornado jets were used by the Saudi Arabian military in 2010 to indiscriminately bomb several Yemeni villages, in what may amount to war crimes. These incidents, and many others like them, are brushed off by the UK Government whenever it suits their perceived national interests -interests which sometimes overlap disconcertingly with the profit margins of major arms companies.

Of course the supposed national interests of the state are extremely changeable. In the recent Libyan conflict British made arms could be found with the Gaddafi regime, the rebels and NATO. Indeed, at least one company, MBDA, legally supplied all three sides with bombs and missiles. Yet weapons are made to be durable and last decades. Many weapons, sold to so-called stable regimes, such as the 15,000 surface to air missiles currently unaccounted for In Libya, will remain a danger for generations to come.

The arms trade accounts for 40% of corruption in all global trade[iii]. A staggering figure when the international arms trade only amounts to $60bn each year, a relatively small sum compared to many industries. The corruption in the trade means that choices made over what arms should be purchased can be skewed towards even more expensive and unnecessary equipment, subverting any semblance of democracy in such decision making[iv] and stealing money from worthier causes. In the UK, political support and prosecutorial incompetence, best exemplified in the Al Yamamah case, has made the country a global hotspot for corruption. Arms companies, like the German Ferrostaal, have even created vehicles in London for “outsourcing commission payments” through which bribes often flow in order to “insulate themselves from potential tax and prosecutorial investigations”[v].

Dealing death in the Docklands

Perhaps the most visible event in the UK’s support for the global arms trade is the London arms fair DSEi (pronounced by activists ‘Dicey’), a government sponsored and subsidised event bringing together arms companies and their customers in London’s docklands every two years. Substantial protests are often heavily policed despite their non-violent nature, yet inside the fair, where repressive regimes are courted by arms dealers, it is left to campaigners, journalists and MPs to expose unethical or illegal activities such as the advertising of torture equipment or landmines.

The last fair took place in autumn 2011, with over 1,300 arms companies attending from around the world, displaying weapons ranging from rifles to tanks to fighter jets to battleships. Specially invited by the UK government to browse through the wares were fourteen authoritarian regimes, five countries identified by the Foreign Office as having "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns" and eight countries identified as being in a “major armed conflict”[vi]. All this takes place in secret, behind police lines and the security fences of the Excel centre. Transparency is not the arms dealer’s friend.

Yet in recent years, journalists and campaigners including Mark Thomas and Caroline Lucas have made it into the fair. Every year torture equipment and cluster munitions, both illegal, are openly advertised; indeed Pakistan Ordnance factories who were caught selling cluster munitions in 2009, returned advertising the same weaponry last year. It is incredible, and indicative of the incompatibility of regulation and promotion, that it took campaigners, a comedian and a Member of Parliament to find clearly illegal equipment being marketed at the UK Government’s own arms fair.

Activists in Defence of Humanity

Campaigners can help regulate the arms trade, stopping the most heinous deals, either through alerting the world, as in the case of campaigners inside DSEi, or attempting to stop the trade altogether through a range of actions as diverse and the people who want the trade to end. This can take the form of educating the public about the trade, challenging the clichéd arguments in favour of arms exports, through lobbying the government, and with direct action. Groups such as Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) use a diversity of tactics to constantly challenge the arms trade and researchers whose names few people will ever hear, work relentlessly to expose individual deals and companies to scrutiny.

Actions taken by campaigners and public pressure have resulted in real victories. Corruption has been challenged, in moves like CAAT’s legal action against the Government over the Al Yamamah investigation. The arms export promotion unit inside the UK Ministry of Defence, DESO, was closed after years of effort. Arms fairs have been shut. An event similar to DSEi in Australia was successfully shut down on three occasions through a public campaign of protest. Lobbying and education are organised by a myriad of churches, unions and social justice organisations.

There has also been a proud history of non-violent direct action against the arms trade. Notable examples include the Seeds of Hope group in 1996, who broke into a BAE base and took hammers to a Hawk jet, intended for sale to Indonesia and possibly used in the conflict in East Timor. Activists in Derry, 2006, damaged Raytheon’s logistical network and prevented shipments reaching the war in Lebanon. The arms company’s office was eventually shut in 2010. These activists, and many others, have risked their liberty to prevent crimes against humanity[vii].

Against DSEi campaigners have tried to shut the fair. They have attempted to stop delegates arriving, including through locking on to the Docklands Light Railway. They have targeted the institutions that support the trade, whether financial institutions that fund the deals or the cultural and political groups that support the fair. Activists have attempted to remind the public of the consequences of the arms trade and pointed out the absurdities of the situation, most memorably with the appearance and impromptu auctioning off to the highest bidder of a real tank by the SpaceHijackers group[viii].

   SpaceHijackers auction off their tank to the highest bidder.

Anti-arms trade campaigners have been particularly targeted in return, with landmark uses of a range of policing and legal tactics. Both arms companies and police have sent spies deep into campaigns and spent millions trying to thwart activists. There have been prohibitions on protests and even an attempted de facto ban on a £500 campaigning film. Luckily these bans have only drawn greater attention. In the case of the film made by the Brighton campaign Smash EDO, “On The Verge”, - a film ironically designed to highlight the repressive tactics used against them - made national news and sparked a film tour as “the film the police tried to ban”. Given the lengths companies and the authorities go to in order to hamper resistance to the arms trade it is a reasonable conclusion that this activism is seen as a potent threat. 

When working on a book on the arms trade, the author I was working with interviewed an arms dealer who operated across the whole spectrum of legality, supplying conflicts all around the world. Asked about whether an arms deal that broke UN sanctions might be immoral he responded that “I’m in this business for the defence of humanity”[ix]. But it is the people who work towards a world where death is not bought and sold who are truly defending humanity. They are the real agents of security. 

The arms trade is dangerous, corrupting and amoral. It exists in a shadow world at the far edges of legality, feeding off conflict and corruption. The state has long turned a blind eye to its damage, defending it in the name of national security or publicly funded jobs. There is a plethora of effective ways to resist - research, education, lobbying, protest or direct action - all help to halt the trade of these most lethal of commodities. It is only through the actions of principled people who want real security for all that the arms trade can be controlled and eventually ended.

Barnaby Pace is a freelance writer and researcher on the arms trade and corruption. He was a primary researcher for “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” by Andrew Feinstein and is a member of the Campaign Against Arms Trade steering committee.


[i] For example David Cameron visited Tahrir Square in 2011 accompanied by Ian King, chief executive of BAE Systems as well as executives from Thales UK, Qinetiq, Rolls Royce, Cobham Group, Ultra Electronics, Babcock International Group and Atkins. Several of whom were involved in arming the Egyptian regime.

[ii] UKTI’s arms export unit employs 160 staff, compared to approximately 130 staff to support its other 34 sectors. See CAAT, 8/7/2011, About UKTI,

[iii] This figure was calculated in 2003 by Joe Roeber in work undertaken for Transparency International. Roeber, J., 28/8/2005, “Hard-wired for corruption: the arms trade and corruption”, Prospect, no.113

[iv] For a more complete insight into the reason why the arms trade is particularly given to corruption see SIPRI Yearbook 2011, “Corruption and the arms trade: sins of commission”, Feinstein, Holden and Pace, Oxford, Oxford University Press

[v]Part of the company’s internal investigation, carried out by its US lawyers Debevoise and Plimpton LLP was leaked in 2011,

[vi] The 14 "authoritarian regimes" as identified by the Economist Intelligence Unit were Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Vietnam. The 5 countries identified by the Foreign Office as having "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns" were Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.  The 8 countries identified by SIPRI as being in a “major armed conflict” in 2010 were Colombia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Turkey and the USA.

[vii] For an academic look at these cases and what they tell us about Anarchism and agents of security please see Chris Rossdale, October 2010, “Anarchy is What Anarchists Make of it: Reclaiming the Concept of Agency in IR and Security Studies”, Millennium - Journal of International Studies, 39(2), pp.483–501,

[viii] Read the SpaceHijackers account of their action  at

[ix] Andrew Feinstein, “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”, London: Hamish Hamilton

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