1990s >> 1997 >> no-1111-march-1997

Wring their necks

There is a poignant moment in Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage, where the protagonist. Courage, despairing at the likely impact the demobilisation of any army will have on her canteen-wagon business, sighs “Peace’ll wring my neck.”

They’re not words that are meant to be taken lightly. Brecht was fully aware that war was just the continuation of business by other means, and the words are meant to scream out at you from the page, echoing at every announcement of arms sales. They remind you that there are thousands of such Courages roaming the world every day peddling their wares and dreading always the cessation of hostilities or even the threat of peace.

One is the Defence Minister Michael Portillo. Towards the end of November last year he could be found flying to the UAE to sign a co-operation agreement whereby the British government would commit British troops to the defence of the UAE in return for arms contracts his industrial sources suggested could be worth £2 billion.

One week later, Britain’s other prized arms promoter, Prince Charles, was also off to the UAE. No doubt in order to lick the sand from the boots Portillo missed.

Only weeks earlier it had been revealed that the British off-shore firm. Mil-Tec Corporation, had supplied $5.5 million-worth of arms to the Hutu militia in Rwanda, and most of this in the wake of the UN imposition of arms sanctions. In true Thatcherite tradition they were in fact “battling for Britain” and hence the government has decided to take no further action. Coincidentally, this came at the same time as evidence was emerging that Britain was re-equipping the Argentinian navy in exchange for a deal that allows Britain to explore for oil in the contested waters between the Malvinas (Falklands) and Argentina.

November was in fact a busy month for the arms dealers. The US, for instance, could be found retraining and rearming Muslim and Croatian forces in Bosnia. One consignment of arms on just one Adriatic-bound ship contained 45 M60 tanks, 80 M1 13 troop carriers, 15 UH-I helicopters, 840 anti-tank weapons and 45,000 rifles complete with ammunition.

As December dawned, the Observer reported:

“The growing number of deals involving conventional arms and nuclear technology between Russia, China and Iran is creating an informal club of powers capable of altering the balance in regional conflicts that would challenge the West’s assumptions of weapons superiority”(1 December 1996).

Russia has signed a $2 billion contract with China and is none too concerned that Iran has announced plans for a $4.5 billion oil-backed deal with China for military equipmentand joint weapons production.

Though such weapons might realistically be used against Russia it does not perplex the likes of one Russian spokesman, Anton Surikov who, believing the pros outweigh the cons, announced that Russia’s security was strengthened by the rearming of America’s military rivals with submarines, missiles and sophisticated fighter aircraft. The logic being that in future less Western attention would be focused on Russia who could be left to carry on its global profit-seeking unmolested.

January came and Michael “Courage” Portillo gave the nod for the sale of 350 armoured cars and police vehicles to Indonesia, in spite of the MoD admitting they would most likely be used to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations. This was an admission that makes a fool of Trade Minister Anthony Nelson who declared last year: “We do not allow arms to be exported indiscriminately. We do not export equipment which is likely to be used for internal repression” (Observer, 19 November 1996). Which is why the same paper could report on the same day that “Britain covertly sold arms which ended up on the Turkish side of flashpoint island of Cyprus”.

Arming the rest of the world, however, gives the West the perfect reason for arming itself against its arms buyers. Thus because the world is militarily an unsafe place, Britain is desperate for 232 Eurofighters costing £16 billion, 386 Challenger 2 tanks and 64 EH 101 battle helicopters.

As the arms trade escalates, we may well ask where arms suppliers, tainted with the blood of Rwandans and Indonesians. and indeed workers the world over, will draw the line. History, though, shows that the competitive drive for profit obscures all such lines, and that wars, or the threat of them draw the arms suppliers like flies to a cow pat.

John Bissett