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Salesmen of death: nuclear powers India and Pakistan on the edge of war, the role of the Blair government in fuelling the conflict has been critical

27 May 2002

In the year 2000, the Government approved nearly 700 export licences for weapons and military equipment to both countries. These had a total value of 64million. India, which gets the great majority of British weapons, is building under licence Jaguar bombers that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

In January, as the two countries prepared for war, Tony Blair arrived in the subcontinent on what was called a "peace mission." In fact, as the Indian press revealed, he discussed the opposite of peace - a 1billion deal to sell India 60 Hawk fighter-bombers made by British Aerospace. "The issue of India acquiring the Hawks," reported the periodical Outlook India, "was raised by Prime Minister Blair with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, defence minister George Fernandes said today."

Three weeks later, the British High Commission in New Delhi threw a party for a group of British arms salesmen in town for a major weapons fair called Defexpo, whose organisers made no secret of their aim to exploit the "recent developments taking place in the south-east Asia region" - in other words, the conflicts in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

So keen has the Blair government been to exploit this opportunity of war that a British official has the full-time assignment, in New Delhi, of "defence supply". He works with the Defence Export Sales Organisation (DESO) in London, an arm of the Ministry of Defence, whose sole aim is to sell weapons to foreign armies. A secret list of 22 "highly valuable priority markets" targeted for British arms sales has India and Pakistan near the top. British missiles, tanks, artillery, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, small arms and ammunition are all available on buy-now-pay-later terms.

But the prize is the 60 Hawk fighter-bombers, coyly described as "trainers". Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt was yesterday reported to have "banned" this deal. It has not been banned; the delivery date has been simply put back - which was the tactic the Blair government used in delaying the shipment of Hawks to Indonesia when the dictatorship in that country was attempting to annihilate East Timor.

India and Pakistan have millions of impoverished people without basic services. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the price of one Hawk bomber is roughly the amount needed to provide 1.5million people with fresh water for life.

Arming both sides is, of course, as British as pith helmets. In the horrendous war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, Britain did just that in company with other Western countries. At least a million people were killed.

The usual hypocrisy and double standards are even more spectacular under this government. Soon after New Labour came to power in 1997, the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. He said that the Government "will not issue an (arms) export licence if there is a clearly identifiable risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country" or if there was a threat to "regional stability".

He might have been talking about India and Pakistan, whose long- running dispute over Kashmir is, according to Cook's successor Jack Straw, "potentially more dangerous than the crisis in the Middle East".

From the day it took office, veiled by Cook's "ethical" nonsense, New Labour embraced the arms business. In his first few months as Prime Minister, Blair approved 11 arms deals with General Suharto's genocidal regime in Indonesia under cover of the Official Secrets Act.

He has since maintained this country as the world's third biggest arms trader, selling more lethal weapons in New Labour's first year than the Tories. More than two-thirds of sales are to governments with appalling human rights records. Britain's biggest customer is Saudi Arabia, the most extreme Islamic regime on earth, where apostates are beheaded. Women have no rights; it is illegal for a woman even to drive a car.

Cherie Blair, who with Laura Bush, wife of the American President, denounced the "brutal oppression of women" in Afghanistan by the Taliban and demanded their emancipation, has remained silent on the medieval treatment of Saudi women in the spiritual home of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia has most of the world's oil.

The results of an investigation by the National Audit Office into the 20billion Al Yamamah (The Dove) deal between the Saudi princes and the British arms industry, believed to be the biggest in history, were suppressed first by the Tories and, since 1997, by Labour. The reason is that the report almost certainly describes "commissions" paid on the sale of Tornado fighters - 15million on one aircraft is said to have been the going rate.

Under Blair, taking his lead from Margaret Thatcher's obsession with the arms industry, sales of weapons and military equipment have become the most heavily subsidised sector of the UK economy apart from agriculture. This means that taxpayers underwrite loans-for-arms to dictators oppressing their people. The argument that the Government is "protecting jobs" is demolished by the writing-off of billions of pounds, which could create jobs in peace-time industries.

This was how Hawk fighter-bombers were "sold" to the Suharto dictatorship. One of the first things Robin Cook did when New Labour came to power was to fly out to Indonesia and shake the mass murderer's hand. Indonesia was then crushing the life out of East Timor, using British Aerospace's finest products: Hawk aircraft and Heckler and Koch machine guns.

For two years, with the help of lobby journalists "briefed" by lying Foreign Office officials, Cook was able to deny that the Hawks were being used in East Timor - until the Indonesians grew tired of the subterfuge and made a fool of him by sending Hawks in menacing passes over Dili, the East Timorese capital.

The making and selling of arms is crucial to the post-September 11 "war on terrorism", which is not a war on terrorism at all but a justification for the US to consolidate and extend its global supremacy. Indeed, most Anglo- American weapons go to client regimes that promote terrorism; Saudi Arabia, home of most of the September 11 hijackers and tutors of the Taliban, is the prime example.

Arms sales and the development of multi-billion dollar warplanes, ships and missile systems, have an essential place in the "global economy". They invariably lead to an American economic "boom" or "recovery" which influences the economies of Europe and much of the world.

In 1960, President Eisenhower called American capitalism a "military- industrial complex" powered by arms and other military-related contracts. Forty cents in every dollar ends up with the Pentagon which, in the financial year 2001/2, will spend a record $400billion on its war machine. Not surprisingly, war ensures the industry's prosperity. Following the Gulf War and the Nato attack on Yugoslavia, both American and British arms sales leapt. When the New York Stock Exchange re-opened after September 11, the stocks of arms companies were almost alone in showing an increase in value. Raytheon, the missile maker and contributor to New Labour, was one of them.

TONY Blair's close links with Israel - many of them forged by his friend, the deal-maker Michael Levy, whom he made Lord Levy - are described as "the Government's tireless efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East." The opposite is true.

As on the Indian sub-continent, British arms policy has actually fanned the flames in a region in deepest crisis. In the first 14 months of the Palestinian uprising against Israel's illegal military occupation - when the Palestinians' main weapon was the slingshot - the Blair government approved 230 export licences to Israel for arms and military equipment. The licence categories these covered included large-calibre weapons, ammunition, bombs and almost certainly vital parts for American-supplied helicopter gunships. These Apache gunships have been frequently on the news, firing missiles at civilian areas.

While British weapons and parts were being shipped to the Israeli military machine, Amnesty International investigators reported "human rights violations and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions which, over the past 18 months, have been committed daily, hourly, even every minute by the Israeli authorities against Palestinians".

Foreign Office mouthpieces, also known as junior ministers, routinely tell Parliament that they have "an assurance that British equipment will not be used in the Occupied Territories". This is clearly false. As reporters witnessed recently, Israeli armoured personnel carriers have a chassis made from British-supplied Centurion tanks.

Business is business, and it never stops. On September 11, at an arms fair in London's Docklands, there was not even a respectful silence in honour of the victims of the Twin Towers. The Israelis had a whole pavilion; one Israeli company, Rafael, was here to sell the Ministry of Defence the Gill-Spike Anti-tank missile, a weapon distinguished by its history of use against civilians in Palestine and Lebanon.

At last year's Labour Party conference Blair, playing the Christian imperialist, promised "the most positive involvement" in Africa that would attack poverty and under-development and heal "a scar on the conscience of the world".

One of the main causes of poverty in Africa is the amount spent on arms by regimes offered a variety of enticements by Western business and governments.

Three months after the Prime Minister's heartfelt words, the value of British arms sales to Africa was revealed to be a record - four times that of the previous year. It was also disclosed that Blair had given his personal backing to the sale of a British-made military air traffic control system to Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries.

The deal was worth 28 million to the arms firm, BAE Systems. This is just what is needed in a country so poor that half the population have no access to running water and children die from preventable diseases.

All over the world 24,000 people, mostly children, die from poverty every day. This is the true terrorism, and it is aided and abetted by politicians from rich, privileged and powerful countries who, in the cause of profit and feigning respectability, are salesmen of death. Their victims, and the rest of us, deserve better.

John Pilger © John Pilger

'War on terrorism' index

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