CAAT has a long and proud history of resisting the arms trade since our founding in 1974. Much of this resistance has followed similar themes, from parliamentary work, research and awareness raising, through to campaigning and vibrant protests across the UK. We’ve won awards, taken legal action against the government, been taken to court ourselves, and been spied on by corporate spies. And there’s been a lot of victories along the way.
Unfortunately there is still a long way to go. Writing this, and celebrating 50 years of resistance, while Israel is committing war crimes amounting to a genocide against the Palestinian people with the aid of the UK arms industry is a sobering and bittersweet.
But our existence, and our role in calling out the UK’s role in what’s happening, and putting pressure on the government to stop arms sales to Israel, is an important one. CAAT’s research is at the forefront of public and media knowledge about the UK’s role in arming Israel. And our campaign to halt arms sales to Israel is very much in keeping with our campaigning work across the last 50 years – credible and respected research, parliamentary pressure, media work, and resources and support for campaigners who are taking action across the UK. We hope that this work, alongside the work of many incredible partners, will force the government to finally put the lives of Palestinian people above the profits of arms dealers.
Stop Arming Repression
CAAT has always campaigned against the UK government arming repressive regimes with appalling human rights records. These are just a few examples:
- In the 1980s, we worked to halt the sale of jets to Iraq following the Iran-Iraq War of the previous several years. The Foreign Office eventually halted the sale. CAAT highlighted the instability in the region and, sadly, our concerns were realised with the invasion of Kuwait, and the violence that followed.
- In the 1990s, we focused on arms sales to Indonesia, specifically over the sale of Hawk aircraft. Suharto, the brutal dictator who ruled at the time, was illegally occupying East Timor, and responsible for a genocide that killed 183,000 people. The campaign against the Hawks (and Alvis tanks) became CAAT’s major campaign in the mid-late 1990s. In 1996, four activists with connections to CAAT, the “Seeds of Hope Ploughshares”, disarmed a Hawk jet at BAE’s factory at Warton, which was bound for Indonesia They were subsequently acquitted by a jury, following their defence that they were acting to prevent a greater crime.
- In 2014, CAAT supporters worked with Bahraini and South Korean activists to stop a shipment of 1.6 million rounds of tear gas from South Korea, to human rights abusing Bahrain. This specific success shows the value of targeted, coordinated action and the value of international co-operation.
- In 2016, we started proceedings against the UK government over its continued arming of Saudi Arabia given the overwhelming evidence UK arms were being used to commit violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen. It took us three years, but eventually in 2019, we won the case with the court finding the lack of review process for arms exports was “irrational and therefore unlawful.” This ruling meant that all arms sales to the Saudi regime were suspended. Unfortunately, in 2020 the government performed a whitewash review on sales and resumed exports. We went back to court. But in 2023, we lost that case. This was due to the court not being willing to rule on the quality of the government’s review process – simply being satisfied that there was one in place. We continue to campaign against arms sales to the Saudi regime, both with Yemini groups, and with Saudi dissidents to highlight the appalling human rights abuses committed by the regime.
Throughout our history, CAAT has campaigned for banks, universities, and other public institutions to divest from the arms trade. These are just a few examples of the successes we’ve had:
- In 1985, Midland Bank, now HSBC, shut down its arms export department in response to pressure from CAAT supporters. Midland had opened a department to finance arms companies. CAAT mobilised huge numbers of supporters, primarily by writing to the bank to question the legitimacy of such a move.
- In 2000, following a campaign by the CAAT Christian Network, the Church of England redefined its investment criteria and confirmed it would no longer invest in arms companies.
- In 2005, SOAS sold all of its investments in arms companies as a direct result of public disclosures by CAAT, and pressure from staff and lecturers.
- In 2014, CAAT forced the National Gallery to end sponsorship from arms companies in our Disarm the Gallery campaign. The arms trade has no place in our public institutions and CAAT was delighted the National Gallery realised this. The Gallery cut their sponsorship deal short, meaning that Finmeccanica, the arms company involved, could also no longer hold dinners and events at the gallery, as well as losing the Gallery’s financial support.
- In 2016, the Edinburgh Science Festival ditched sponsorship from Selex Ex thanks to the Arms Trade Out! Campaign.
Today we are working with War on Want and PSC to campaign against Barclays due to it providing billions of pounds of investment and loans to companies selling weapons and military technology to Israel. Following the last day of action in February, 1,500 people closed their accounts.
No to arms fairs!
Throughout our history, CAAT has campaigned against arms fairs. These events are used by governments and arms companies to network and promote their deadly wares to representatives from some of the world’s worst human rights abusing regimes. Several arms fairs have also been found to be displaying illegal equipment from electro-shock torture devices to anti-personnel landmines.
CAAT supporters have been at the forefront of making sure these events aren’t welcome in our communities, organising marches, blockades and creative actions to ensure these merchants of death face resistance whenever and wherever they meet.
Since 1999, a lot of our focus has been on Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI), the word’s biggest arms fair that takes place every two years at the ExCeL centre in London. In 2007, CAAT alongside a coalition of campaigners succeeded in forcing Reed Elsevier to pull out of organising the fair. Chief executive Sir Crispin Davis commented, “We have listened closely to these concerns and this has led us to conclude that the defence shows are no longer compatible with Reed Elsevier’s position as a leading publisher of scientific, medical, legal and business content.”
Since 2011, the mobilisation against DSEI has been organised by a coalition of groups under the Stop the Arms Fair banner. In 2017, a donation of an artwork by artist Banksy raised more than £100k for CAAT. And by 2019, the resistance ran to nearly two weeks of camps, blockades, workshops, creative events, as well as the art exhibition Art the Arms Fair.
With DSEI set to return in 2025, we will continue to keep up the pressure against this abhorrent event. But while DSEI is the biggest arms fair, it is far from the only one. In 2024, CAAT has already been part of mass mobilisations against two arms fairs in Twickenham, and is set to take to the streets again in March against the Bristol Arms Fair and the Home Office organised Policing and Security arms fair in Farnborough.
CAAT’s research is at the heart of all its work. The success of our campaigns and our media work relies on credible research that our supporters, parliamentarians, and journalists know they can rely on.
In 1996, we published our first major report, “Killing Jobs” by Professor Paul Dunne. This report dismantled economic arguments often advanced for the arms trade, and set the tone for the rigorous research that we produce.
In 2011, CAAT launched its online UK arms export licence browser, presenting official information on UK arms export licences in a far more accessible and user-friendly way than is available from the government. The browser, along with several other information browsers subsequently produced, continues to be widely used by CAAT staff and supporters, journalists, NGOs, and others.
Our annual report is an essential resource for bringing together information and analysis on UK arms exports, and is regularly cited by journalists and politicians.
In 2024, working with Demilitarise Education, we published a report into the increasing militarisation of universities. And we are looking forward to the publication of our report into the political influence of arms companies later in the year.
The next 50 years?
While we continue to strive for a world without arms exports, it is unlikely that our current geo-political situation is going to lead to their abolition any time soon.
Alongside the work above, we are also working on intersections of the arms trade. For example, we work to highlight the role that arms companies play in enforcing racist colonialist border policies – with the same companies profiting twice – providing states with the weapons to repress and displace communities, and then providing the technology to repress the same people on our borders when they are forced to flee. Meanwhile, as the climate crisis rages, it is important to remember the role the arms trade and the world’s militaries play as major polluters, and to look at ways in which the money and technology used to kill people, could be refocused into projects that could save the planet and save lives.
We are proud of what we’ve achieved in the last 50 years. But there is so much more to do. We hope that through remembering and looking back over the last 50 years, we will inspire people to think about what we can do in the future, and what we can achieve through working and campaigning together for a better world.