Killer Profits: How Western Democracies Fuel Conflict Through The Global Arms Trade


Earlier this month, London hosted the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair 2019. International delegations from 68 countries came to the Ministry of Defence-supported trade show in order to see the wares of 1,700 military technology suppliers, who manufacture everything from light firearms to unmanned drone systems. On display was the cutting edge of modern weaponry, with UK ministers and military personnel in attendance for keynote speeches and demonstrations of products on display.

While the fair, Europe’s largest, is a significant fixture in the arms trader’s calendar, it is also a focal point for protest against an industry that profits from the sales of increasingly effective weaponry. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and MP Caroline Lucas were two British political figures who spoke out against the three-day fair. Khan said that he “strongly opposed” that the event took place in London, “a global city, which is home to individuals who have fled conflict and suffered as a consequence of arms and weapons like those exhibited at DSEI.” He made clear his intention to block the show from taking place in the city in future years. The DSEI fair also drew attention among the British public, with over 100 individuals arrested for attempts to block the roads around the convention and upset the proceedings.

The outrage around DSEI hinges on the fact that eight of the invited delegations are from nations which the UK Foreign Office itself has deigned to be human rights priority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade group criticized the fair for bringing “a roll call of the world’s most repressive regimes together with all of the biggest arms companies. They will be there for one reason: to sell as many weapons as possible, regardless of the consequences.” Monitors, such as Amnesty International, who had intended to inspect products, were denied access to the event even though in previous years suppliers have infringed human rights agreements with unlawful leg irons and electric shock batons. The hypocrisy of displaying a smorgasbord of war toys in London was not lost on many, not least on Ms Lucas, who tweeted: “We pretend to promote human rights & democracy yet sell arms to some of world’s most abusive regimes.”

This is the crux of the problematic global trade in arms. Governments promote peace on the one hand and yet facilitate a trade which deals in the perpetuation of war. Al Jazeera highlighted that the UK arms trade made sales of up to $17bn last year, 80% of which was attained through selling to Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia in particular, despite their involvement and indiscriminate bombing attacks in the Yemeni Civil War. In August of this year, the UN discovered ordnance manufactured by Brighton-based EBO MBM Technology Ltd at a site in Yemen, demonstrating how the UK arms trade implicitly contributes to human rights abuses and war crimes in the Middle East.

But the United Kingdom is not alone in its discrepancy between espousing peaceful values on the one hand and exporting the means of war on the other. All five of the permanent member states of the United Nations Security Council numbered among the greatest exporters of arms between 2014-2018, according to the 2019 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This summary of global military expenditure, nuclear arsenals, and arms trading showed that in the four year period, the United States, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, France, and the United Kingdom exported 70% of the world’s arms between them, with the U.S accounting 36% of those sales. Arms exports are currently at their highest since the end of the Cold War, increasing 7.8% in 2014-2018 compared to the previous four year period. It is in the context of a flourishing global arms trade that an event such as DSEI takes place.

In order to prevent the use of weapons and munitions to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Arms Trade Treaty was voted on by the UN General Assembly and came into force in December of 2014. Though many key states are ratified members of the agreement, these parties nevertheless continue to sell arms to suspect actors around the world, as a recent Amnesty International report acknowledged. Unfortunately, the treaty does not seem to have had much effect on the state of matters on the ground, where arms continue to flow into humanitarian crises.

Similar measures between companies and buyers seem to be equally futile. End user agreements, which nominally prohibit the resale of arms to a third party, do little to stem the flow of weapons. A number of videos produced by Al-Qaeda in Yemen show fighters wielding German-made firearms, such as the G3 and G36 assault rifles and M3 machine gun manufactured by Heckler and Koch. As a 2018 Deutsche Welle documentary explores, these items should not appear in the hands of rebel militias in Yemen according to official end user agreements. Clearly, regulations around the sales of firearms are insufficient.

It is unacceptable for nations to promote peace on the one hand while profiting from the sale of arms on the other, especially when those nations are party to UN agreements which prohibit arms dealing where there is a known risk of deploying these items in high risk areas. While it rightly attracted negative attention for its mockery of basic rights to freedom from violence, the DSEI arms fair is only the tip of a very ugly, and lucrative, iceberg. There are no two ways around the fact that the global arms trade profits from technological innovation in the efficiency of maiming, restraining, and killing human beings, and benefits from a lack of oversight.

It is hardly surprising that violent conflict ravages the lives of so many when to deal in arms is so profitable. One way to curb warfare would be to better regulate the means with which to fight. Perhaps democratic, peaceful, and civic means of conflict resolution would be more appealing if access to armed means were restricted. The fundamental change, however, needs to come from governments themselves, in the UK, the US, France, and Germany. As it stands, these governments are content to prioritise capital gains over world peace and human welfare.

The head of exports at the Ministry of Defence in the UK, Fleur Thomas, underlined the importance of the DSEI fair, adding that “whatever the next few days or weeks or months may bring [in terms of Brexit] the future for our defence sector is a very bright one.” If defence and security exports are so fundamental to the economic well being of a peace promoting democracy, then there is a drastic need to change the system.

David N Rose

Writer and postgraduate student of MA Intercultural Communication at the University of Manchester, UK.
David N Rose