How Brexit could fuel the international arms trade

The UK is already one of the biggest arms exporters in the world. And the government is in no mood to be picky about who buys their guns. 

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“Almost all the journalists I know have been put out of business. They’re either being arrested or having their newspapers shut down.” Ali knew the situation better than most. As the UK correspondent for a Turkish publication he had seen colleagues detained and former workplaces shut down in President Erdogan’s ongoing war against journalism.

Only two months later, Theresa May touched down in Ankara to meet the man behind the crackdown. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to call for reform, or to support the rights of journalists like Ali. She was there to sell weapons.

By the time she left she had secured £100m worth of fighter jet sales, in a deal that BAE Systems Chief Executive Ian King welcomed as “an exciting next step in relations between both Turkey and the UK.”

This deal hasn’t come in isolation, with a further £50m of arms sales having been licensed to Turkey since last summer’s failed coup. Despite the instability and oppression, it remains on the government’s list of "priority markets" for arms exports.

In that time, 125,000 state workers have been purged from their jobs, with a further 40,000 people arrested. Reports suggest torture has become widespread, with Amnesty citing evidence of detainees being subjected to "beatings and torture, including rape.”

The government line is clear, with Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan saying; “The scale of people being arrested is massive and needs to be justified … but we have made it very clear that we need to deepen our bilateral relationship. Turkey is a large and significant economy which cannot be ignored."

The UK’s commitment to human rights has always been selective and tenuous. However, with the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, there is every reason to believe the government will do even more to push arms sales and cosy-up to human rights abusers.

Erdogan’s Turkey is far from the only repressive regime to have been visited by May in the hunt for for post-Brexit allies. Last December she visited Bahrain for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, which meant three days of photo-ops and schmoozing with dictatorships. Her keynote speech didn’t mention human rights once. Instead she used Brexit to call for even closer ties to the region:

“I am determined that we should seize the opportunity to get out into the world and to shape an even bigger global role for my country: yes, to build new alliances but more importantly, to go even further in working with old friends, like our allies here in the Gulf.”

It’s not just Theresa May. In the last six months the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has visited Oman, Bahrain, UAE, where he made his first official speech in post, and Kuwait. There is no question that arms are central to their plans. The Middle East is a small region, but it accounts for almost two thirds of UK arms exports.

This percentage is only likely to increase in the years ahead, with more arms companies shifting their focus from Europe to "emerging markets". Last August the ADS, a trade body for arms companies, told Bloomberg: “Europe will continue to be important, but there are perhaps other areas where there is now a bigger incentive to develop longer-term relationships... Brexit provides the circumstances and the catalyst for faster and more efforts.”

The importance Whitehall puts on the industry is obvious. As Bob Keen, head of government relations at BAE, told the House of Commons Defence Committee “it simply is not possible to do a major defence deal without fundamental government support.”

In the government’s post-Brexit green paper, increasing arms exports was included as a key point in its industrial strategy. It also announced the MoD will work with arms companies to develop a programme to “enhance support for exports.” Similarly, David Jones MP, a minister for Exiting the EU told arms company reps he is “determined” exports “will continue to thrive after our departure from the EU”

The government is pouring support and resources into arms sales, but any impact on the economy will be negligible. Arms sales only account for 1.4 per cent of exports, even this is an overestimate of their importance as around 40 per cent of the value of the exports is imported in the first place. Industry jobs are in long term decline. According to ADS, arms exports account for 55,000 jobs, roughly 0.2 per cent of the workforce.

There is no shortage of industries that would be grateful for the support and investment being offered to arms companies. The renewable energy sector in particular stands out as one that employs many of the same skills and is in need of personnel.

Since I spoke to Ali, the outlet he worked for has been closed by Erdogan. May’s visit did nothing to help him or the thousands of victims of the ongoing repression.

When the UK arms human rights abusers it sends a statement of support to the regimes. But it sends a different message to those like Ali, and to those being detained and tortured for their beliefs. It tells them that their rights are negotiable and their liberties are less important than arms company profits.

According to the Prime Minister, Brexit will see the rise of a "global Britain". If so, will it be one that stands up for those living under oppression, or one that continues to arm, support and appease those oppressing them?

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.