This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Dangerous Widgets

It seems like only yesterday that Tony Blair was invading Iraq and lecturing us about how sometimes in government you have to do what is right rather than what is popular. This week it seems it is important to do what is popular. (If only he could manage to be both right and popular and get lost... ) But if “popular concerns” were the guiding force behind political action, MPs would have slashed their own wages and strung themselves up from lamp-posts long ago. And if Blair really wants to be popular he should reintroduce the death penalty and, on a bad sporting day for England, nuke France into the bargain.

This week, according to the Prime Minister, anyone who is against ID cards is a Hamza-hook-fondling liberal. Possibly a kiddie-bender, too. So, not wishing to appear out of step with the law-and-order agenda, this column takes as its topic antisocial behaviour... and the arms industry.

Globalisation has affected every sector, and arms manufacturing is no exception. Rather than selling whole fighter planes, companies may find it easier to license production to countries with cheaper labour costs, such as Pakistan or Egypt, shipping out the component parts for assembly. Britain appears to be carving out a role in this globalised arms trade as a maker and supplier of widgets, the components that make the arms work. A growing number of British widgets are ending up in machines that go bang or bump, and increasingly they do so in places where they shouldn’t. Arms control is keeping pace with neither technology nor globalisation.

The massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May last year, saw about 500 civilians murdered by the Uzbek authorities, which even by Blair’s standards has to count as antisocial behaviour, perhaps beyond even the restraining powers of Asbos. News pictures showed Uzbek soldiers taking cover by military vehicles and training their guns on the fleeing men, women and children. To some the vehicles looked strangely familiar, and so they should have: they were Land-Rovers, exported to a state that likes to boil its political opponents to death.

“But they are only Land-Rovers,” you may cry. No, they are military vehicles, and without them soldiers would have to rely on the Uzbek Oyster card to travel to and from a massacre (making slaughter cheaper but dependent on track-repair programmes). How did they get there? Land-Rover had exported “civilian” component parts to Otokar, a Turkish company, which assembled “military” vehicles before passing them on to Uzbekistan. In all, 70 per cent of the vehicle comes from Solihull, and this valuable trade (of which Land-Rover says it knows nothing) requires no arms-export licence.

It is not an isolated case. The CIA has used pilotless drone planes, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to carry out attacks in countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Called the Predator, the agency’s UAV can be controlled from hundreds of miles away via satellite and a joystick – the ultimate PlayStation game. In 2002 the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator plane over Yemen, killing six men including a Qaeda suspect. The popular response might be: “Bollocks to them, al-Qaeda innit?” But Amnesty International said: “To the extent that the US authorities deliberately decided to kill, rather than attempt to arrest these men, their killing would amount to extrajudicial executions.” Extrajudicial killings tend to be frowned on by Britain, unless we are talking about Brazilian electricians and blokes carrying chair legs wrapped in paper.

On 13 January this year the CIA again used a Predator to launch a missile strike, this time on the village of Damadola in Pakistan. There appears to be no evidence that the target, the Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the dead, but reportedly 18 others were, among them five women and five children.

The Predator’s technology comes from Towcester in Northamptonshire, where a company called Radstone Technology produces single-board computers for the Predator’s US makers, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. A Radstone spokesman has been reported as describing the technology as the “brain” of the Predator, without which the plane would not be able to fly.

As with Land-Rover and military vehicles in Uzbekistan, Radstone does not need a licence to export the “brains” of a pilotless drone that goes around firing missiles for the CIA. This is odd. In fact, it is more than odd. The main instrument of British arms-trade control is licensing – you need a licence to export anything from body armour to missiles – and under the rules UAVs are regarded as “long-range missiles”, placing them in the same “restricted goods” class as WMDs and some torture equipment. Jane’s Defence Weekly, the arms industry trade journal, has to get a licence just to publish adverts for UAVs. That’s right: you need a licence to advertise an unmanned aerial vehicle, but you don’t need one to export the computer that makes it work.

As industrial production fragments around the globe, we will see more examples of British technology playing a part in extrajudicial killings and massacres. So, if arms-trade control is to have any meaningful impact in protecting lives worldwide, we have to catch the widgets in the net, too.


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