By supporting arms sales, our government abets murder

By granting export licences for the weapons sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia, is the UK government becoming an accessory to murder? Daniel Flecknoe and Dr Ahmed Razavi respond to this question below. 

Why would an industry which every year contributes to the deaths of the equivalent of the population of Oxford be supported by our government?

Last year there were 52 state-based armed conflicts in the world, which killed over 140,000 people – the population of Oxford – directly. On top of that, those affected by these wars, including more than 230 million children worldwide, suffered reduced access to food, clean water, education and employment, as well as increased levels of sexual violence and crime. They will likely endure for their lifetimes the impacts of the associated mental health trauma.

Yet the UK is a major arms supplier and subsidises the arms trade in numerous ways. This week, for example, it is sponsoring one of the world’s largest arms fairs – the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) – being held in east London. Arms companies profit from supplying weapons which inflict death and suffering, enable gross violations of international law and human rights, and devastate communities around the world. As public health professionals, we view the UK government’s complicity in the global arms trade as the population-level equivalent of aiding and abetting murder.

Over half of UK arms exports go to the Middle East. In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is waging a war characterised by the targeting and destruction of civilian infrastructure, a public health disaster is underway. A massive cholera epidemic has taken hold, together with starvation, displacement and a minimum of 17,640 direct civilian casualties as of 2018. The UK has been a major facilitator of this war, providing more than a quarter of Saudi weapons imports. Despite tacitly admitted that these weapons are being used to commit violations of international law in Yemen, no change in policy has so far been signalled.

At the individual level, deliberately helping another person to commit a crime is known as being an ‘accessory’, as Crown Prosecution Service guidance makes clear. UK citizens shown to have aided or abetted a criminal may be prosecuted, even if they do not directly participate in a crime. Specifically, the law states that an accessory can be liable if they supplied a weapon knowing that it was likely to be used to break the law. The Violent Crime Reduction Act (2006) also makes it an offence to ‘facilitate the availability of the weapon for an unlawful purpose’. Should our government not be held to the same standard?

War is one of the greatest threats to human health – but wars are not inevitable. They have catalysts and drivers, and the UK arms industry is a significant driver of conflict around the world. Civilians everywhere deserve, as we all do, lives free from preventable sickness, injury and death. Yet even as we write, people are being targeted, both deliberately and negligently, with weapons engineered in this country. Our government and our arms industry are, in effect, accessories to the unlawful killing of many thousands of human beings around the world. We supply the murder weapons, knowing how they will be used.

Whether or not a post-Brexit economic crisis looms, we cannot support a sector of British industry which facilitates the bombing of hospitals, contributes to mass displacement, epidemics of infectious disease, malnutrition, environmental damage, mental health trauma and human rights abuses. We fully support the #StopDSEI protests against the massive arms fair in London next week and hope the movement against the arms trade will keep growing until it becomes untenable for the UK government to continue supporting an industry whose only output is mass-manufactured destruction on an epic scale.

Daniel Flecknoe is a Consultant in Public Health and Medact trustee 

Dr Ahmed Razavi is a Specialty Registrar and member of the Global Violence Prevention special interest group at the UK Faculty of Public Health