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Selling repression around the world

Andrew Smith and Matthew Burnett-Stuart focus on the UK's role, and that of UK arms companies, in promoting tear gas and weapons for state repression around the world.

March 24, 2015
4 min read


If you were making a list of the companies that have only cause chaos for our world then arms company Chemring would have to be pretty high on it.

It’s a company that embodies moral bankruptcy. Its tear gas and plastic bullets have been linked to attacks on pro-democracy campaigners in Egypt, Kuwait and Hong Kong, and its major clients including the dictatorships in UAE and Saudi Arabia.

This year its AGM was a bit more lively than usual, with CAAT activists making their presence felt. We came armed with colourful banners and uncomfortable questions, and succeeded in having the meeting temporarily adjourned after telling a few home-truths to the shareholders in attendance.

Unsurprisingly Peter Hickson, the Chairman of Chemring, didn’t even attempt to make any kind of defence for the lucrative and immoral arms deals he has overseen with tyrants and human rights abusers. Instead he reeled off the standard excuse that all arms companies use whenever they are put on the spot, and assured those in attendance that every weapon they sold was supported by the UK government.

Nobody would question that all of these sales have been legal and above board, but that doesn’t mean that arms companies can simply absolve themselves of any responsibility for the consequences when they arm oppressors. Arms sales are not apolitical acts, and by choosing to sell weapons to regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt Chemring is directly strengthening and endorsing them

Last October, when its tear gas was found to be used against protesters in Hong Kong, Chemring showed what looked like a thin slither of humanity and insisted it would be reviewing its export policy. However, at the AGM the board told shareholders that the policy was unchanged, and that all arms sales would go ahead as long as they are supported by the government.

The reasons for this lack of empathy are obvious. Companies like Chemring depend on conflict and repression in order to make a profit. If world peace broke out tomorrow then it would need to close its doors. This point is acknowledged in its annual report, in which CEO Michael Flowers writes “Chemring is well-positioned to benefit from any sustained increase in demand as a result of the conflict in the Middle East.” In other words, morals can be cast aside because war and conflict are positive and much needed developments for shareholders’ pockets.

Of course in one sense he is right, none of Chemring’s sales could happen without the support of the government and ministers like Philip Hammond and Vince Cable, who have only been too happy to promote them. That is because the government doesn’t just facilitate arms sales, it actively encourages them.

We are always being told about how ‘rigorous’ and ‘robust’ the UK’s arms exports policies are, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even when Chemring said it would review its policy the government’s line was the exact opposite, with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond telling the BBC “CS gas is available from large numbers of sources around the world. To be frank, I think that is a rather immaterial point. They could buy CS gas from the US.”

The coalition government has approved £16 million worth of licences for anti riot equipment, including tear gas and rubber bullets, to countries whose regimes are on its own list of ‘countries of concern.’ As long as it continues to promote arms exports, companies like Chemring will keep selling their wares to human rights abusers or conflict areas.

What is clear is that Hickson, Flowers and the rest of the board has bought into its own propaganda and a dystopian world-view in which arming tyrants can be a legitimate and admirable business practice, and where the human consequences of war have nothing whatsoever to do with those who provide the weapons. Arms companies won’t change their ways off their own accord, and nor will the governments that support them. Only by working from the bottom up and mobilising public opinion against the arming of tyrants and dictators can we affect positive change and send the message that enough is enough.

Andrew Smith and Matthew Burnett-Stuart work for Campaigns Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can watch CAAT interrupt the Chemring conference here.

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