Universities and the arms trade

Campaign Against the Arms Trade's Tim Street on the links between British universities and arms comp

In recent months, students and staff across the UK have been lobbying their universities to sell their shares in arms companies and invest ethically.

When University College London students discovered that their university had £900,000 invested in Cobham (which manufactures components for Hellfire missiles- used widely in both Afghanistan and Iraq)they formed Disarm UCL in order to bring this relationship to an end.

In a meeting with student campaigners, UCL Provost Malcolm Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. Such overwhelming support for the campaign led him and UCL Council to announce that the university would invest its money ethically.

UCL is by no means the first university to recognize the importance of ethical investment.

Campaigners at Manchester University held die-ins and other high-profile events, culminating in 300 students passing a Union motion for ethical investment. This has led to the university engaging directly with students concerning the future of university finances.

Furthermore, protests, petitions and student journalism have caused SOAS, Bangor (University of Wales), St Andrews and Goldsmiths to take real steps towards ending their financial ties with arms companies.

Progress towards transparency and accountability on campus has occurred because activists have used persuasive moral and financial arguments to explain why investing in the arms trade is unnecessary and wrong.

For example, they have shown that universities can fulfill their financial duties whilst investing ethically and maintain a good rate of return.

Ethical investment funds that preclude arms company shares are among the most profitable. In the past decade the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethically-managed fund was the second best performer of more than 1,000 funds.

Furthermore, the fact that the majority of university arms investors hold less than 2% of their overall investments in arms companies means that divestment will not have a significant impact upon their portfolios.

So why is it that some universities try and cling on to their arms company shares?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the burgeoning number of research projects at UK universities which are conducted in collaboration with arms companies.

At a committee meeting in 2006, Malcolm Ace, Director of Finance at Southampton University, told students that it would be ‘hypocritical’ to sell his university's shares in BAE Systems when it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of research funding from them year on year.

Research collaborations provide substantial funding for university departments – but in return for them becoming outsourced research facilities for private companies. Universities' science, engineering and technology agendas are inevitably shifted from independent research to the stimulation of particular industrial sectors: like the guided weapons technology centres at Cranfield University and Imperial College London, part-funded by arms company Qinetiq; or the 20 University Technology Centres funded by military aerospace giant Rolls-Royce. (See "Soldiers in the laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology," Scientists for Global Responsibility).

Arms companies are already subsidised by public money to the tune of £890m annually, yet universities are expected to provide research for these already over-protected companies.

Whether or not students and dons regard the commercialisation of higher education as financially necessary, they shouldn't be made to contribute to commercial interests which involve not just corporate profit, but the development of products designed to maim and kill; nor to collaborate with companies whose core markets include conflict zones and human rights abusers

Campaign groups such as Disarm UCL, which are prepared to highlight the gap between an institution's professed commitment to “tackle humanity's most pressing problems,”3 and the economic reality, are thus vital if public money is to cease being channeled into the pockets of arms company CEOs.

For without anyone questioning the status quo, institutions renowned for their commitment to internationalism and human progress will continue to support companies whose profits rest upon proliferating weapons and sustaining international tension.

You can find out more about Campaign Against the Arms Trade by clicking here

Tim Street is the director of UK Uncut Legal Action

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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