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.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I won't give the world a Coke

Tonight With Trevor McDonald is not something that some folk admit to watching. Mainly people don't admit to watching it because it is rubbish. And in any case, they don't watch it. Tonight With . . . is less a current-affairs flagship and more of a Herald of Free Enterprise ferry - big, brash and lying on its side in the harbour.

However, I was moved to watch the "Has Coke lost its fizz?" programme. Coca-Cola's recent story is one of stumbling growth, partly explained by a crash in sales of fizzy drinks. But it is also connected to a product so sugary that Kate Moss could double her body weight by drinking one can, to stories of trade unionists murdered by paramilitaries in Colombia, and to drought-stricken villages in India.

The programme went out on 6 March, after being pulled from the schedules at the last minute and delayed for a week. According to the ITV duty office this was due to "compliance" issues. Granada's press office says it was "technical" problems. Whatever the reason, Coca-Cola is having a bad time - and really knows it is when a programme such as Tonight With Trevor comes lumbering after it.

The fizzy drinks market has begun to collapse. In a troubled seven-year period from 1998 to 2005, the company's share price halved. The figures out for last year's sales show only 1 per cent growth for Coca-Cola Enterprises UK, which is bad news for Coke. Even the company was forced to admit its problems: "Our business growth is not what we would hope." The 170 redundancies it announced in January are a more accurate reflection of its woes.

As Jamie Oliver whizzes around on his Vespa of health, as schools knock the sale of fizzy drinks on the head, and as Britain gets the health-food bug, Coke has taken a pounding. Its attempts to get into the UK's bottled-water market were fantastically farcical. Dasani, the brand name forever associated with Peckham Spring, was found to be Kent tap water with some minerals in it. Whereas there is nothing wrong with tap water - or, indeed, with Coca-Cola adding a few minerals and salts to it - punters felt disinclined to pay a quid for a bottle of the stuff.

Following a media storm over the ingredients, Dasani was withdrawn from the market, with no plans to relaunch it in this country. Which leaves Coca-Cola in a bind: more people are opting for water than fizzy drinks, but the company's water brand is even deader than Tessa Jowell's career. So how is the company going to break into the water market?

Step forward Aquarius, a lemon-flavoured non-carbonated drink that happens to sell rather well in Spain. Coca-Cola has been testing punters' reactions to it in the UK. Marketed in trusty natural-blue hues - the bottled-water seller's favourite - and with a bottle design associated with sports and health drinks, the new product is, according to some close to the company, ready to launch in the summer.

Paradoxically, Coca-Cola has just launched its answer to Red Bull, Relentless, which carries the warning "Not suitable for pregnant women". This, you might think, runs slightly counter to a healthy image. But then Coke has never been all about making the world a healthier place.

As if the company didn't have enough on its plate, along came intriguing scenes at War on Want's annual general meeting on 25 February. The charity's council had decided to support the call for a boycott of Coca-Cola in protest at the killing by paramilitaries of workers at Coke bottling plants in Colombia.

Members of the trade union Amicus turned up in force to oppose the planned ban, handing out leaflets stating that they had "consulted with the workers in Colombia and have been assured by them that they do not support a call for a boycott". Obviously, these people have not spoken to the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, which initiated the call for a boycott following the deaths of a number of its members.

Stranger still was the presence of the public relations man Douglas Trainer, seen sitting and chatting with the Amicus bloc. Trainer is a PR man consulted by Coca-Cola (in an advisory capacity, it is keen to stress). So what was a PR man with connections to Coke doing at a War on Want AGM? Was he a member? "Yes," said Trainer. So when did he join? "Thursday." Two days before the AGM.

When advisers to Coca-Cola are joining charities two days before crucial votes that will affect Coke, things appear a tad desperate for the company.

So why all the shenanigans at the War on Want AGM?

Trainer is an ex-president of the National Union of Students. Coke currently faces a major NUS conference vote on the issue of boycotting the company. As Coca-Cola's contract with the student purchasing body NUSL is up for renewal, advocates of a boycott are using the opportunity to force a vote. Has Trainer been asked to steer the company through the choppy waters of the NUS vote? Coca-Cola did not comment on this suggestion.

The event is already causing the company some concern, regardless of the outcome. The last thing it needs is War on Want lining up alongside Unison as supporters of the boycott and creating any kind of momentum on the issue.