At the ExCeL exhibition centre in Canning Town, 1700 companies were displaying their wares. British soldiers – ‘military escort officers’ – looked after delegations from all over the world. They took them to their hotels and they took them shopping. One escort told me that the Angolans were on the hunt for helicopters and the Egyptians were after surveillance equipment. A delegation from the UAE lingered at the stall of the Italian firm Cristanini: a woman in a camouflage cocktail dress and knee-high boots stood in front of a display of decontamination equipment, for use after chemical or biological attacks.
On 10 August, after days of intense fighting, secessionist forces of the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen seized control of Aden, deposing the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The STC and the Hadi government are nominally allies in the war against the Houthis. The two senior partners in the war’s disintegrating coalition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also found themselves on opposite sides in the battle for Aden. The Saudis strongly favour the Hadi government; the Emiratis have long-standing ties with the STC.
‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for 'exasperation' now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain's defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, 'a successful, dynamic and creative business' in Surrey. And business is booming.
On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.
In July 2014, in an effort to pre-empt embarrassing revelations that might emerge from the UN’s decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the British foreign secretary made a tactical confession. Between 1983 and 1986, Britain had approved sales of chemical weapons precursors to Syria, which was known to be developing a massive weapons programme. William Hague told Parliament that the chemicals were probably ‘used by Syria in their programmes to produce nerve agents, including sarin’. ‘Such exports could not happen today,’ he said. In March 2015, the Committees on Arms Export Controls said that ‘the decision of the present government to give two export licence approvals for dual-use chemicals to Syria in January 2012 after the civil war had started in Syria in 2011 was irresponsible,’ and that ‘the present government’s claim that at the time the two dual-use chemical export licences for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride to Syria were approved in January 2012 “there were no grounds for refusal” is grossly inaccurate.’
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to Downing Street on Wednesday, having had lunch with the queen. Yesterday evening he dined at Chequers. A petition against his visit, just passing the 10,000 signatures at which the government must respond, elicited a statement assuring the public that British values would be stressed during the visit, and that UK arms export licences were subject to the highest standards of scrutiny concerning their eventual targeting. There are guests at Yemeni funerals who would no doubt beg to differ.
The share prices of BAE Systems, Qinetiq and other British arms firms rose in November as the likelihood of Britain launching airstrikes against Syria increased. After the House of Commons voted in favour of military action on 2 December, there were three sorties in five days, then nothing until Christmas Day, when a Reaper drone hit an Isis checkpoint south of Raqqa. The much lauded Brimstone missiles were at last deployed on 10 January, to destroy a small supply truck. The Telegraph recently quoted a military aviation expert saying that Britain’s air campaign is ‘a non-event which can have had little, if any, impact on the balance of power on the ground’. A Reaper attacked another checkpoint in Syria on Monday, and yesterday evening Typhoon FGR4s from RAF Akrotiri dropped Paveway IV bombs (manufacturer: Raytheon UK) on a compound in Mosul. Paveway IVs are also used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. Save the Children said in early December that Britain was putting arms sales before humanitarian concerns.
Currently on display at London’s Excel Conference and Exhibition Centre are more ways to kill people than you can imagine: tactical sniper rifles from the United Arab Emirates’ Tawazun Advanced Defense Systems, medium-calibre mortars from India’s Ordnance Factories Board, optical sights for grenade launchers from Bulgaria’s Opticoelectron Group. And there’s the less lethal, too, like the CS gas made by NonLethal Technologies of Pennsylvania. 'Sure it’ll make you tear up,' a company representative said. 'But it won’t kill you.' He might have added: 'usually'.
On 9 February, after ten years on death row, Mohammed Afzal Guru was judicially assassinated in Delhi. The BJP warmly supported and publicly celebrated the event. A veteran Kashmiri activist and a medical student (born in 1969), he had been picked up and accused of being part of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The evidence was totally circumstantial, the confession obtained under torture and a threat to kill his family. All this is well known. Had the Chinese regime behaved in this fashion towards a Tibetan, the media and political response in the West would have dominated the news. Kashmir remains invisible to the world. In India all the mainstream parties welcomed the hanging. The media was supportive of the government. In Kashmir a general strike shut down the province and the police opened fire on demonstrators.
The corridors of the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, one of the very few health facilities in the rebel area of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, are cluttered with beds. Half the patients here have been wounded in the civil war that broke out in June 2011. The first war in the Nuba Mountains, between Khartoum’s government and the Nuba rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, started in 1985. When a ceasefire was signed under international pressure in 2002, the Nuba, rebels and civilians alike, were on their knees. Gidel Hospital, built soon afterwards, was made to resist a bomb blast. And with good reason. Sources close to the SPLA estimate that more than 900 bombs were dropped on the Nuba Mountains between June 2011 and January 2012, killing 86 civilians and injuring 170. More than 400,000 civilians have been displaced. Possibly hundreds of thousands of Nuba now rely on wild plants to survive. Khartoum’s tactics ten years on haven’t changed much since the first war: aerial bombing and ground shelling, attacks by the army and proxy militias, without much attempt to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But new arms have appeared as well.
At a loose end in the last week of June? No idea how to fill those empty weeks between the queen's diamond jubilee and the Olympics? Forgot to buy tickets for the Counter Terror Expo at Earl's Court at the end of April? Got a warehouse full of fighter jets and cattle prods you can't offload because your European 'partners' have foolishly slashed defence spending as well as education and welfare budgets in the name of austerity? All is not lost. From 25 to 27 June, Securing Asia 2012 will be 'bringing the the Asian Homeland Security and Counter Terror Markets to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre' in Westminster:
In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa. This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic.
The UK supplies Israel with a steady stream of arms on a 'case-by-case basis', although none of them are supposed to be used inside the Occupied Territories. In practice there is no way of knowing what Israel does with the kit it buys, so British companies are restricted from selling things, including fighter parts and missile systems, that have been used in the Occupied Territories in the past. But under the current rules the US can still tranship this kind of hardware to Israel through the UK.