Review: The Façade of Arms Control, by Anna Stavrianakis

October 10, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The UK is one of the world’s most largest arms exporters. It manages to do this under the cover of a licensing system that fails to restrict arms exports, providing only the most superficial transparency while obscuring deep ties between the government and arms exporters.

Anna Stavrianakis provides an overveiew of the licensing system and clearly explains how it does not make for an ethical policy – while showing us how the unique background and evolution of the UK arms trade, as well as how the context of increased emphasis on national defence, means that the UK arms trade is still booming.

Her central argument is that the UK government claims its licensing system is amongst the most transparent in the world, yet it remains impossible to ascertain what equipment was exported, to whom, and when, or what equipment was refused, to whom, when and for what reason.

Cases covered by the media, for example the BAE Systems-Saudi investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, are only the tip of the iceberg. Examples relating to human rights and regional instability feature widely in the press. Exports to the USA and other NATO allies and much of the Middle East, as well as the trade between arms companies and the UK military, which make up the bulk of UK-based companies’ sales, are less widely remarked on.

In general, the UK’s role as one of the world’s largest arms exporters and military spenders is not often seen as a problem in and of itself. This is a missing part of the debate about the arms trade. What Stavrianakis brings to the debate table is the role New Labour has played in perpetuating the way the arms trade works, while simultaneously claiming to change it:

“Arms control was a key element in the “ethical dimension” that the Labour Party proposed to bring to foreign policy. Since its arrival in power in 1997, however, the Labour government has been widely criticised for its record on arms exports, with critics pointing to the disjuncture between its rhetoric of benevolence and its practice of sending weapons to repressive states, conflict zones, and areas of regional instability.”

During the current post-Tony Blair hangover, it is a timely reminder. While Labour may well have had its day for a long time, it is important that Gordon Brown’s problems and the economy do not serve to obscure the foreign policy failures over which Blair presided. In light of the events of the last decade, ‘ethical foreign policy’ as espoused by New Labour is the kind of hyprocrisy which needs to be addressed before it is brushed under the carpet with newer problems and challenges.

It’s the licensing system, stupid

Stavrianakis’ work on this provides a useful starting point for challenging the existing system:

“The arms export guidelines are written and interpreted in such a way as to facilitate exports, and pro-control actors within government are weaker than pro-export actors. This, combined with the close relationship between the arms industry and government and the rhetoric of sovereignty and national defence, means that the licensing process is a ritualised activity that functions to create the appearance of restraint rather than significantly restrict the arms trade.”

Under new labour, the legislation provides cover for these dubious activities.

Arms control is the left hand of the government – while we tell other countries how to treat its minorities, we sell weapons to even more repressive regimes, under cover of loopholes:

“The default position is to grant licences for exports, and government-to-government deals do not require a licence (as it would be perverse for the government to licence itself ). So, for example, the Al Yamamah contracts with Saudi Arabia are government-to-government deals between the UK and Saudi governments, with arms companies such as BAE Systems acting as contractors to the government. As no licences have been granted, no details appear in the government’s annual reports.”

Stavrianakis also examines the claim that the arms trade is good for the economy – a claim which is not supported by any hard evidence. She also attempts to explain the political obstacles to change – Margaret Thatcher was famous for personally intervening to secure arms deals such as the massive Al-Yamamah deal to Saudi Arabia, and under New Labour, Tony Blair himself successfully lobbied for a £3 billion arms deal to South Africa.

So where does Stavrianakis’s work fit in the global disarmament debate? It is a concise and convincingly picture of the UK’s role in the global arms trade, illuminating the web of links between governments and arms exporters. It provides an ideal complement to the wider debate about disarmament and the challenges the movement faces in the future.

Anna Stavrianakis is an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex

For more information about the Campaign Against Arms Trade, visit

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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle

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