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Friday, March 31, 2006

Let's Start an Arms Company

A few months ago I watched a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Ellie, from Oxford, phone a tank manufacturer in Romania. Ellie was part of a group of British students who formed their own arms company and ran it once a week at lunchtime.

“I want to chat to someone about a tank,” she said. “What kind of tank?” asked an uncertain eastern European voice.

“A TR-85 M1.”

“You want a price?”

“Yes, that would be great.”

A month later and Ellie’s arms company was quoted a guide price of 2.5m for the tank (CD players and cup holders are extra).

The students attend Lord Williams’s Upper School, in Thame, Oxfordshire, and are part of the school’s Amnesty International group. Together with a teacher, George Lear, they set up an arms company, Williams Defence – completely legally – from their school premises, as part of a project for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme.

The Daily Mail might be tempted to scream, “Kids taught arms dealing at school” (something it might actually approve of, if the subject were referred to as business studies). In reality, however, the pupils approached the project by discussing the human-rights implications of the UK government’s arms licensing policy. They interviewed arms dealers, quizzed politicians and discussed citizenship. They ended up presenting their findings to MPs from the quadripartite committee (the select committee with oversight of arms licensing) and the minister responsible, Malcolm Wicks. Parliament, you may remember, is keen that citizenship be taught in schools. I can think of no finer act of citizenship than school students exposing the UK government’s failures to control the arms trade.

The students focused on brokerage, which is basically acting as a middleman. For example, someone in the UK could broker AK-47s direct from China to Chad and the guns would not touch British soil. No government controls would have applied before 2004. Since then, laws have been introduced requiring brokers to license such deals. However, the school’s investigation highlighted a number of loopholes, particularly for what is called “police and security equipment”. The pupils started by locating arms companies on the internet and e-mailing them. It didn’t take long to find equipment intended for torture or ill-treatment. They then purchased and shipped it all, legally.

Thumb cuffs sound medieval and, indeed, they are. The internal edges are serrated and will tear flesh quite easily. They are used in China against Tibetan monks, priced $3.65 from Taiwan. Wall cuffs are a single handcuff with a bolt and chain for shackling a prisoner to the wall. These are used all over the world. Straight out of Poland: yours for £9 a set. A sting stick is a long metal baton with spikes and barbs along its shaft. Priced $7.50, it has been used in Tibet and Nepal. The sting stick was brokered to a human-rights activist in the US and then imported into Blighty. The police told me during our filming that if I carried the stick in public I could be arrested for possessing an offensive weapon. Yet there is no UK law to prevent it being brokered around the world.

None of these items requires a licence and there is not even a register of arms dealers and brokers. That is why it was so easy for the students to run an arms company from school. Yet it wouldn’t be hard to update the lists for torture equipment, and even the Defence Manufacturers Association (the arms trade body) supports a register for arms dealers and brokers.

The students went one step further. Brokering small arms (pistols to AK-47s) needs licences if done from Britain, but if a British citizen steps over the border from Northern Ireland into Ireland they do not. Which is what Williams Defence did, setting up an office at the side of a road and using their mobile phones. They were given quotes for grenade launchers from Pakistan to be sent to Syria ($421), MP5 sub-machine guns to go from Turkey to Mali (750) and pump-action shotguns to go from South Africa to Israeli settlers in Hebron. The dealer in South Africa said he couldn’t get a licence to get the guns to Israel but he could send them to a firm in Switzerland or Greece which would do the deal from there.

The Dispatches programme shows the need for Europe-wide brokerage controls. In a parallel project in Ireland, where no brokerage laws exist, six schoolgirls and a nun brokered electro-shock batons. They were also asked to become agents for Korean electro-shock equipment dealers.

The rule of extraterritoriality should ensure that British law applies to British citizens even when outside the UK. It is used to catch paedophiles. It should be used to prevent British citizens dealing in leg-irons, wherever they are. If we have a law covering long-range missiles, why not one for the real weapons of mass destruction, small arms? Half a million deaths a year are caused by small arms – almost one a minute.

The government ordered a review of arms export laws, to report in 2007. It could do worse than ask the students at Lord Williams’s Upper School where UK policy is going wrong.

After School Arms Club, Channel 4, 3 April, 8pm


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