Sunday, 18 September 2011

Is Kent arming the world?

We need to ask questions about Kent’s role in the arms trade.

Coming hard on the heels of KCC’s tobacco involvement, news that it is reconsidering its funding of BAE armaments is timely this week.

The opening of the DSEi bi-annual arms fair at London’s Excel trade centre hosts not just BAE but 180 other arms companies. And at least 14 authoritarian regimes such as Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the hunt for, not just missiles and tanks, but UK crowd control equipment such as handcuffs, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.

The kind of equipment now being used on the public in Syria and Bahrain and Yemen for the freedoms we enjoy. Invariably the fall of a dictator reveals the torture chambers stuffed full of UK equipment – even the Libyan arms dump at Al-Ajaylat this week reveals tons of napalm, cluster bombs and even mustard gas – as used by Saddam on Halabja in the Iran War.

Sarah Waldron of CAAT said: “ The UK Government continues to spend taxpayers' money promoting arms sales to repressive regimes. DSEi is more than just an embarrassment -it is an outrage.”

In Kent, public funds are used not just for investments in the dictator’s tool box, but with Infratil and the arms trade through Ostend. Both Manston and Ostend are notorious gun-running hubs into Africa and the Middle East - only recently supplanted by the ghost airstrips of TransDniestra, Moldova and Romania - for arms shipments to hotspots such as Liberia, Congo, Sudan and Somalia.

Kent’s flight-logs include aircraft banned from the whole of Europe, such as Silverback Freighters and UN-sanction busters for guns and blood diamonds such as DAS Air, MK airlines, Afghan’s KAM Air, Russian Ilyushin freighters and even this week , just days after the 9-11 anniversary, Iran Air.

Who needs nuclear ICBM’s when you can fly a banned 747 across Europe and land near Canary Wharf?

And even bushmeat and Nigerian cocaine have been impounded at Manston by Kent Police. Undoubtedly the conflict zones trade in rare earths for your TV, mobile or computer will prove as enticing for smugglers and difficult for brands. With issues over supply chains whether it’s the sweatshops of Primark and Nike or Foxconn or just an ever more demanding consumer, and immediacy of the Facebook Generation, the landscape has changed for corporations.

Hugo Williamson of R2G Risk Resolution Group said: “UK companies and their agents and distributors across Africa and Asia need to take sound advice on the implications of the new Bribery Act, trade and Corporate Manslaughter legislation.”

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for Kent Police to be even more progressive in securing weapons procurement with the MOD and Port x-ray equipment for the kinds of semtex formerly provided by Libya to the IRA that would spoil a day out at Bluewater or Canterbury cathedral, rather than the bomb hoaxes of recent weeks.

Kent’s toxic legacy with the conflict zones of Africa – such as Thor mercury in Margate and Cato Ridge pales into insignificance given the role Kent companies such as MAG can play in demining say Libya – not just the present conflict but as far back as WW2 – or the EU-HALO programmes in Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

While a recent conference on the Ivory Coast highlighted not just a lack of a UK ambassador, as the country emerges from civil war centred on the blood diamond fields, but over 70% of food imported as rice aid from USA. An opportunity there perhaps with Kent’s sister-state Virginia for greater use of twinning associations and school exchanges.

As with the failed coup in Honduras, the Arab Spring heralds an opportunity for greater democracy with a UN Parliament and the UN Millennium goals – still with no UK public sector sponsorship- and global legislation against coups and military dictatorships. Again all the more suitable given this week’s 50th anniversary of the UN’s Dag Hammerskold in securing peace in Africa.

Kent’s vibrant Third Sector of charities and shops – and the battered High St in general - or progressive ethical funds such as the Co-op provide a clearer focus for Kent investments rather than bombs.

The threat of cluster munitions in Libya - and banned this week even by Afghanistan - still pose a deadly harvest across Laos and Cambodia from the Vietnam War. A munition as repulsive as napalm – only designed to pop off a foot or hand and to soak up medical aid, and brightly coloured for children to play with.

Elizabeth Barrett of Oxfam said: “Supporting charities such as Oxfam and handicap International helps our work in overcoming the suffering caused by cluster munitions.”

With UK arms exports at £9Bn – nearly 20% more than Third World aid – arms companies are essentially State tax-funded organisations. While UKTI spends nearly all its time on the arms trade – for less than 2% of UK arms exports.

Perhaps it is time for Kent to lead the way in ethical policies – not just opening arms factories for scrutiny and barcoding, arms shipments only by the military and greater scrutiny of tax investments, but wider policies such as Total petrol, currently facing EU sanctions in Burma.

Or divesting KCC’s other oil investments given the Chinese oil and gas and rail works across Burma into Southern China with razed villages, forced labour, slavery and civil war essentially funded on the rates.

Let’s hope removing Kent’s tobacco, arms and oil investments marks a sea-change in a more progressive Brand Kent for the 21st century.

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