What’s the difference between a freelance Russian arms dealer and a British Prime Minister? Only one of the arms dealers is likely to do hard time.
It’s no surprise that Cameron’s tour of Asia so openly escorted arms makers (hardly debutants) signing off on deals with governments in the region, as Barack Obama did here in November last year. Cameron is continuing a long tradition. It’s an imperial tradition which has been modernized and sanitized for the age of mass democracy and public relations.
But for Cameron there’s family history: his great-great grandfather, an influential banker in London, helped the Rothschild family bankroll a nascent Japanese Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
This is not Cameron’s first overseas tour since taking office as Salesman-in-Chief. In Kuwait in early 2011, while on a Middle East tour, arms dealers in tow, he admitted Britain had been “wrong” to help to prop up the region’s dictators over the years.
Meanwhile, more than 100 British companies were taking part in a huge Middle East arms fair — part organized by the British government and attended by defense minister Gerald Howarth — aimed at flogging weapons to places like Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, even as the Arab Spring began to unfold.
Cameron has since spoken of his pride at Britain’s role in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow. I suppose he must be deeply ashamed of Britain’s almost 120 million euros ($157 million) in weapons sales to the Qaddafi dictatorship between 2005 and 2011, and of British rapprochement with the colonel following Blair’s infamous ‘deal in the desert’ scandal and the ongoing suppression of evidence relating to the perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing.
Recent credible allegations about the abduction by MI6 (Britain’s secret service) and the CIA of one of Qaddafi’s main political opponents, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his transfer to a Libyan dungeon for torture in exchange for BP’s access to Libya’s oil can only be of further embarrassment to the fraternal establishment.
Business, it seems, is business, and it never stops. Cameron was once, somewhat innocently, hailed by Papuans as a leader who would champion calls for human rights protection and greater and more tangible autonomy. On the 2010 campaign trail he spoke of how exiled Papuans had described a “terrible situation” in the province, where observers say human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and torture are carried out with impunity. Villagers were photographed waving Cameron’s picture and prominent political prisoners Victor Yiemo and Buchtar Tabuni congratulated him from their jail cells on his win.
His support of opposition Papuans was intended to garner praise at home and abroad. It seems there’s little room for turning such platitudes into action when in office, with mounting opposition across the political spectrum to domestic policies that are increasing inequality and a corporate patriciate eager to capitalize on the chaos following the financial crisis, which was perhaps the biggest criminal fraud in history.
Britain has a long history of selling arms to Indonesia, a history in which Cameron seems keen to write a new chapter. Beating the drum and flying the flag (Cameron’s words), Britain continues to arm the world.
When Tony Blair took office in 1997 he quickly signed 11 arms deals with President Suharto’s regime, maintaining Britain as the general’s chief weapons marketplace. One of the enduring legacies of the Tony Blair years was that, after agriculture, the UK arms industry became the most subsidized sector of the economy. The increase in subsidies for arms makers made it easy for Robin Cook’s foreign ministry to beat off competition to sell the Heckler and Koch machine guns and British Aerospace’s Hawk fighter-bombers used in East Timor in 1999 and Aceh in 2003.
Since 2008, despite a moratorium, Britain has approved £48 million ($76.6 million) in military equipment sales to Indonesia — more than two thirds in the form of drones, helicopters and aircraft parts — which could be used for military purposes, according to researchers at the London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Wednesday’s announcement of renewed arms deals between Britain and Indonesia (on hold for more than a decade) will no doubt be warmly received by BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace, if not in Papua, where some of the armaments could be used. There were reports last year that Britain was involved in negotiations with Indonesia to sell 24 Eurofighter Typhoons in a $3.2 billion deal. The planes never materialized, but could be a sign of the scale of deals to be struck in the future.
Cameron first extended the hand of Britain’s state-facilitated business empire to Sudan. In October 2010 Foreign Minister William Hague declared a “new epoch” in relations with Sudan and invited members of indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir’s government to London. The idea was to carve up Sudan’s resources between Britain-based firms.
The organizer, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a government body set up by Tony Blair in 1999, and its arms trade wing UKTI DSO, introduced the Sudanese generals to oil firms, arms dealers, banks, engineering and agribusiness interests who were delighted to be told, “There’s a lot of money to be made.”
A similar meeting was told the same thing about Iraqi oil after the US invasion. And there were echoes of the Geneva conference of 1967, when the resources of this archipelago were handed out to US, Japanese and European firms.
Despite a professed “discouragement” of investment in “countries of concern,” UKTI has facilitated arms deals with Burma, also called Myanmar, where Cameron stopped on Friday. The body expedites huge arms fairs, helping to fuel some of the most protracted conflicts on the planet.
An advisor to UKTI, which Prince Andrew represents, in 2010 admitted that Britain’s overseas embassies are routinely used by UKTI as bases for private interests to make deals with countries with questionable human rights records. UKTI investment reports rarely mention abuses. In Sudan’s case, it failed to note government atrocities in Darfur and against Christians in the south, or the ICC indictment of Bashir.
Cameron’s saccharine double-talk often disguises his role as arms dealer and public relations magnate for the transnational heavyweights, which is increasingly the central role of the office of Prime Minister. Effectively cutting out the middlemen, Prime Ministers act increasingly as apostles of the godfather of propaganda Edward Bernays.
Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer labeled the ‘merchant of death’ and sentenced to 25 years last week in a US court, is unfortunate to no longer have the backing of a powerful state.
Once the business partner of the US Army and several US private military companies operating in Iraq, connections to the Bush administration were ignored at his trial and dismissed when presented by investigators. Prominent news organizations now regularly refer to him as a “Soviet arms dealer.”
Bout’s case shows us that dealing arms to the world’s worst rights abusers will eventually catch up with you; unless, of course, you’re a member of The Club.
This blog post represents the views of the author and not The Jakarta Globe as a whole.