Observations On the Contrary

Of swords, ploughshares, and climate change

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d3806 (Published 22 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3806
  1. Tony Delamothe, deputy editor, BMJ
  1. tdelamothe{at}bmj.com

If the UK military wants to save the world it could start a little closer to home

The BMJ, with the UK Climate and Health Council and senior UK military figures, had planned to hold a conference on climate change this month. The editorial announcing the conference (now rescheduled for 17 October) made a convincing case for collaboration between the medical and military professions: “Climate change poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds off the other” (BMJ 2011;342:d1819, doi:10.1136/bmj.d1819).

So far, so good, though the solutions the editorialists identify—shifting to renewable energy sources, reducing energy consumption, and improving the infrastructure of cities—don’t look like happening any time soon. Meanwhile, could senior military figures begin agitating for change closer to home?

They could start with Africa, which in 2010 received overseas development aid worth $29.3bn (£18.2bn; €20.1bn), according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures (www.oecd.org/document/35/0,3746,en_2649_34447_47515235_1_1_1_1,00.html). Nevertheless the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the continent’s total military spending was $30.1bn last year. It is hard to escape the image of all of Africa’s aid money disappearing down the plughole, with a fair proportion of it draining back to the world’s arms manufacturers.

This diversion has predictable consequences. The African Child Policy Forum ranks African governments by their spending on the key sectors that affect children’s welfare (BMJ 2011;342:d3356, doi:10.1136/bmj.d3356). At the bottom of its list are Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the reasons they were there was “their relatively high military expenditure.”

South Africa is the continent’s biggest spender on arms. Andrew Feinstein, a former MP for the African National Congress, said of his country’s latest arms splurge: “While we were spending what will amount to over £8bn on arms that we didn’t need and barely use, Thabo Mbeki told the five and a half million South Africans who were living with HIV and AIDS that we could not afford the antiretroviral medication that they needed to stay alive” (http://bit.ly/lmyMxS).

Earlier this year a no fly zone was proposed for Libya to protect its civilians by cutting off supplies of arms to the Gaddafi regime. Imagine the incalculable benefits that would accrue from maintaining an arms blockade for the entire continent, at least until everybody had enough to eat.

Which brings us to the UK, the world’s fifth largest arms exporter. Accounting for 6% of its arms exports, Africa is currently a growth market for the UK, with the value of contracts rising almost sixfold between 2001-5 and 2006-10. Will this growth continue? As the Stockholm institute points out, the current UK government has given strong political support to UK arms exports.

This can lead to some queasy moments, such as the prime minister, David Cameron, fronting an arms selling delegation to the Middle East, just as the “Arab spring” was taking off. Since then a House of Commons report on arms exports has reminded us that some of these exports can be used against civilians in these countries. A few examples: Egypt (training in small arms ammunition, night sights, parts for armoured personnel carriers), Libya (combat shotguns, teargas, intelligence equipment, crowd control ammunition), Syria (cryptography equipment and small arms ammunition), Bahrain (submachine guns, sniper rifles, and teargas and other riot control agents), and Yemen (body armour and military camera technology).

Is it prudent to adopt a position of ethical neutrality so long as the profits of UK plc are at stake? It’s certainly harder to do this when the victims have a human face and name. Take the case of Ahmed Basiony, the artist chosen to represent Egypt at this year’s Venice Biennale. He was shot by police snipers while filming January’s uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and then run over. It matters to me whether the hardware responsible for his death was “Made in Britain.”

Thankfully, it turns out there is no moral dilemma; once subsidies are taken into account the UK’s defence industry hardly turns a profit. This is set out clearly by Samuel Brittan, economics commentator for the Financial Times (see articles listed under “Arms” on http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text.html). His bottom line: “Whether the direct cost of arms support slightly exceeds the benefits or slightly falls short of them, the amount is trivial in relation to UK GDP [gross domestic product].”

I began by asking whether the military could find opportunities to improve the state of the planet that were closer to home and then moved on to criticising the arms trade, as if the military and arms manufacturers were the same thing. Of course they’re not, although the separation between the two is far from clear cut. In the UK, the government unit promoting arms exports may have shifted symbolically from the Ministry of Defence to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2008, but specialist military staff are still crucial to its sales (http://bit.ly/lmyMxS).

Adding to the confusion was the degree of overkill during some of the battles fought in the two Gulf wars. They made more sense if interpreted as live demos at trade fairs rather than traditional combat. As a US government source told the Times: “Conflicts act like a customer demonstration show and we tend to see an upsurge in sales” (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/engineering/article614530.ece). It raises the question of how much the arms industry exists to help the military win wars and how much wars are fought to help the arms industry shift its product.

There seems to be much for the top military brass to ponder in its own backyard before telling the rest of us to turn off the lights and convert our waste into energy.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3806