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We must end this trade in weapons of war

Ukrainian protesters at the French ambassador's residence in Kiev, protesting sale of Mistral warships to Russia, July 14, 2014.

Story highlights

  • Molly Scott Cato says UK, France have not demonstrated decency as they've defended arms trade
  • She says a culture of shamelessness amongst arms traders and their political friends remains unchallenged
  • The Green MEP says that, even if people don't want an arms ban, they should not treat industry like others

The recent controversy over arms sales to Russia reminds me of an interesting exchange during a hustings I took part in during the 2009 European Election campaign.

We were in the Friends Meeting House in Gloucester and, being a Quaker, I felt very at home. A question came up about the arms trade and I fully expected to be ridiculed for being an absurd idealist.

I said that some products should not be part of a market system and that arms were one of those. To my astonishment, all but one of the candidates agreed. The candidate who disagreed, a Tory, at least had the decency to look sheepish about defending this trade in the weapons of death.

The prime ministers of the UK and France have not demonstrated even this level of decency in recent days as they have sought to defend the sale of military equipment to Russia.

This first came to my attention in the European Parliament debate on Ukraine when a French member of our group challenged his compatriot for removing from our motion a call on the French government to ban the export of Mistral helicopter carriers and end the training of 400 Russian sailors at St. Nazaire.

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This questionable deal has become considerably more embarrassing since the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Yet despite French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' earlier comments that if relations deteriorated he would ban the deal, the culture of shamelessness amongst arms traders and their political friends remains unchallenged and it is expected to proceed.

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    The unseemly trading of accusations of hypocrisy across the English Channel does nothing to build the confidence of the victims of the world's conflicts that our countries are concerned for their plight.

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    Export licenses for UK arms exports to Russia increased in the last 12 months at the very time that our prime minister and Foreign Secretary were mouthing meaningless platitudes about getting tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin. So, while money talks, the children suffering in the world's conflicts zones are condemned to silence.

    Which brings me to Gaza. By international consensus Israel is not a regime that is guilty of abusing human rights and so is an excellent market for arms exports: the UK agreed licenses worth over £10 million just last year, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

    In 2009 Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted that Israeli equipment being used in Gaza probably contained UK-supplied components and the same is almost certainly true of the current atrocities.

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    During another debate in Strasbourg last week, where our agenda was dominated by foreign policy I had to watch while the Green motions calling for "a comprehensive UN arms embargo to all parties in the region in order to prevent further violations of international humanitarian law and human rights" was expunged by the Grand Coalition demonstrating its commitment to business before morality.

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    The Campaign Against Arms Trade recently called for an end to what it labeled "arms control by embarrassment," with governments waiting for catastrophes to occur rather than issuing ethically motivated bans on regimes with a history of abusing human rights.

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    Although it is Ukraine and Gaza that are the current flash-points the main export markets for British arms are the wealthy oil states of the Middle East including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and UAE where citizens put their lives at risk for merely asserting their basic human rights, and their safety is threatened with arms made in the civilized countries of Western Europe.

    Since becoming an MEP I have received many letters from lobbyists for different industries.

    The most disturbing by far was from a French arms company inviting me to the Farnborough Air Show, recently opened by David Cameron. As well as their enthusiasm to demonstrate the effectiveness of their weaponry they also supplied me with statistics about their "economic contribution" in terms of annual turnover and healthy profits.

    I found this sickening because for every child that has died in Gaza and each of the 80 children on flight MH17 there was a weapon with a maker's serial mark and a country of origin. Even for those who would not join me in calling for an international ban on the sale of arms surely there is a need not to treat this as an industry like any other.

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