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Mythbusting

There are many myths used to justify the arms trade, or to argue that nothing can be done about it. We address some of the most common ones here.

Last updated: 31/03/2020

There are many myths that are used in an attempt to justify the arms trade. It is important that campaigners are prepared for them.

Myth: The arms industry is good for the economy.

The UK government’s support for the arms industry costs the public money. Support for arms sales alone costs taxpayers £100m a year, and a huge amount more goes into areas such as Research and Development. This money needs to be shifted to more positive and sustainable industries, such as renewable energy and low-carbon technology, which are crying out for workers with similar skills. Our research shows that a move towards offshore wind and marine energy could create far more jobs.

Arms only account for around 0.2 per cent of UK jobs and 1-2 per cent of exported goods. Even when it comes to the UK’s manufacturing sector, which employs about 2.7 million people in the UK, arms account for just 3.2% of manufacturing employment. It is a small part of the economy, but there are certain parts of the country like Warton and Salesbury where arms companies do provide a lot of jobs. Any shift in priorities from arms to more sustainable industries must make sure these areas are a priority for new jobs.

Myth: It’s all about the money.

For the arms dealers, it is certainly all about the money. Individual politicians in buyer and seller countries may also receive payments through the corruption often involved in arms deals. But the arms trade is worth very little to the UK economy, and subsidies to arms exports mean that they actually cost the government money. In fact, the government supports arms exports because they believe a strong arms industry gives the UK status in the world as a “Great Power” – an aspect of “militarist” thinking that dominates government ideas of security.

Myth: The world is a dangerous place – we need the best weapons money can buy.

Security is often talked about as though it is defined by military strength. It is not. Many big threats to human security such as climate change, energy needs and economic inequality are not military.

The money and skills being used producing and selling arms would bring greater security and financial benefits if they were invested in addressing real security challenges such as climate change. A militarist mindset can make our security worse by always using military solutions to problems and making the likelihood of armed conflict worse.

Myth: Arms sales keep our allies safe, and that helps to keep us safe.

Arms sales to brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia (by far the UK’s biggest arms customer) do nothing to keep people in the UK safe – if anything the opposite. They harm the security of people in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia – the Saudi-led war in Yemen has killed 100,000 people and caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with retaliatory attacks from their Yemeni Houthi enemies.

The reckless policies of the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have also helped destabilise Lebanon and started a disagreement with Qatar that almost led to war in 2017. Saudi rivalry with Iran is another major threat to peace in the region. UK arms sales have not influenced the Saudi regime’s behaviour in any positive way. The UK’s desire to see the weapons sales keep flowing have helped create this devastating crisis.

Myth: The UK has one of the strictest systems of export controls in the world.

This is the line used by government ministers just about any time they are challenged on arms sales – as if repeating it often enough makes it true.

The only truth in this one is that most other major arms producers are just as bad… though some at least have stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia and others involved in the Yemen war.

The issue is wider than Saudi Arabia, with the UK arming and supporting human rights abusing regimes around the world, including those in Bahrain, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, Hong Kong, Israel and beyond.

Myth: If we didn’t sell them, somebody else would.

There are a lot of arms producers in the world, and many are happy to sell to most willing customers, unless they are a direct enemy, or one of the few countries under UN embargo.

But in many cases, it is not easy for a country to switch its major arms supplier overnight. This is especially true for Saudi Arabia, whose Air Force is composed entirely of US and UK aircrafts, and is dependent on extensive support and maintenance from its US and UK suppliers to keep these flying. Many experts have stated that the Saudi Air Force would be grounded without this support, and they could not simply switch to Russian or Chinese-made planes in the middle of a war, requiring a whole new set of equipment, services, and training.

If either Washington or London halts the flow of logistics, the Royal Saudi Air Force will be grounded.

–  Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institute, 2018

The argument shows the hypocrisy of UK foreign policy. We are always being told that the UK stands for human rights and democracy, yet the government regularly arms and supports human rights abusers around the world.

There could be united international action if some major arms producers were to change their policies. In theory, the Arms Trade Treaty was supposed to do just that, though in reality it became a way for arms producing countries to allow their sales to continue. But the international treaty to ban landmines, while not completely stopping the use of these evil weapons, has been extremely successful in limiting the production, sale, and use of landmines, and shows it is possible to overcome the “somebody else” problem where there is genuine political will.

Myth: Arms sales to human rights abusers are a problem, but not to democratic western countries.

While there is more chance of harm in some arms sales than others, the idea that “western democracies” are innocent in their use of arms is wrong. The USA is the UK’s second biggest arms customer (as well as a major supplier of arms to the UK), and US-led wars – with full UK support – have caused death and devastation in many countries. At home, US police forces kill over 1000 people a year, disproportionately African Americans, and have recently carried out brutal repression [TODO: update link to new website] of protests following the murder of George Floyd. The UK sells tear gas, rubber bullets, and other anti-protest equipment to the US, which could easily be used in this way. The problems of militarism, colonialism, and racialised policing are global.

Myth: It’s hypocritical to protest against arms sales to other countries – Britain is no better.

Indeed, the UK has enthusiastically joined in most of the US wars this century, and has its own issues around the legacies of empire and racist policing. In highlighting the harm done by arms exports, we are in no way saying that arms produced and used by the UK are benign! Campaigning against UK arms sales overseas and against the UK’s own militarism are not contradictory – they go hand in hand.

Myth: Why do you never talk about arms sales to country X?

The UK sells arms to a lot of countries, and as a small organisation we are limited by our time and resources. We focus on countries that are the biggest UK arms customers, where there are the most immediate issues of war and repression, where the UK has close political relationships with the buyer countries, and where we have the closest connections with communities directly affected by the actions of the regimes buying UK arms. We probably don’t always get it right, but we do our best to present the clearest possible picture of the harm caused by the UK arms trade.

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