Bright and early on 30th March, CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade) staff and supporters gathered outside the little-publicised headquarters of government body UKTI (UK Trade and Investment). Armed with postcards, spoof progress reports and a giant cuckoo costume, we set out to broadcast how our government supports the arms trade, and the fundamental issues this raises. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me start with some history.
In 2007, after over twenty years of CAAT co-ordinated campaigning, Gordon Brown announced the closure of DESO (Defence Export Services Organisation), a department within the MoD (Ministry of Defence). Other than assisting private arms companies to sell military equipment and services abroad, this department provided an overwhelming level of support and access to government ministers and the policy decisions they influenced.
Sadly 2008 saw the opening of UKTI DSO (Defence and Security Organisation), destined to take on many of the functions previously executed by DESO. This new civilian position affords much less influence and power, and yet through UKTI DSO the taxpayer is still supporting the sale of arms into areas of conflict, and to countries that abuse human rights. With vastly disproportionate staff, resources and their own board member, the department has been made as powerful as possible within its new confines, despite representing less than 1.5% of annual UK exports.
Since opening its doors last year, DSO staff have attended 13 international arms fairs, and hosted 27 meetings and Defence Industry Days with officials from countries such as Angola, Columbia, and Saudi Arabia. Also teaming up with events-giant Clarion to organise one of Britain’s own bi-annual arms fairs DSEi (Defence Services Exhibition international), to be hosted this September in the London Docklands. With an opening budget in the region of £19.5million, and a dedicated set of staff, do we really want this department working in our name, and paid out of our pockets? We don’t think so.
On Monday, the one year anniversary of DSO’s creation, the UKTI board met to discuss its performance thus far, and we were there with an alternative message.
Equipped for a dual-pronged approach we presented our own evaluation of their progress; a spoof of their own progress report was so good, one employee declined with a “No thanks, I’ve already got it, in fact I think I wrote part of it”. Wonderful. However, as the morning progressed, we noticed a shift. Where in the beginning staff were taking the report because they thought it was official, people were soon asking for it because they knew it wasn’t. We had many an “off the record” mention of support and even someone coming back out for extra copies. With the minor celebrity status of the board, we also noticed an increase in security since our last visit. Perhaps they thought our strictly non-violent protest might stretch to storming the building!
Whilst our key aim for the day was to get staff and board members talking about our campaign and the realities of DSO’s ‘progress’, public support is a vital element of campaigning. The disproportionate support for DSO within UKTI led us to the imagery of a cuckoo pushing all other industries out of the UKTI nest; obviously the natural progression for this was a giant cuckoo handing out action postcards. Whilst my unfortunate sewing skills led people to think a chicken from George’s Marvellous Medicine had escaped and was roaming the streets of London Victoria, it certainly served to get people’s attention.
Whilst we call for the closure of UKTI DSO and the cessation of its functions, we’re not calling for staff to lose their jobs, just be employed more productively. In this economic climate, it’s increasingly clear that there is great need for financial restructuring and the reallocation of resources. With 30% of government research and development funding going towards arms, scarily little is dedicated to real security threats such as climate change, as highlighted by the G20 protests this week.
More information about our UKTI campaign, and photos from Monday can be found on our website, www.caat.org.uk.
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This post was written by Selina Larsen