Guardian, Comment is Free, May 30 2007

May 30, 2007

The Gower Street gunrunners 

University College London should know better than to defend its investments in the arms trade – and pull out instead.

The details of last November’s air strike on a religious school in the tribal Bajaur region of Pakistan are still shrouded in controversy.

The authorities claim that the school was an al-Qaida training camp, and that all of those killed were terrorists. Survivors insist it was an ordinary madrasa, and that the 82 victims were students, not militants. Local residents say that the attack was carried out not by Pakistani forces, but by US drone aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles. The government has denied this – but sought to prevent journalists from travelling to the scene, and has so far resisted calls for an independent inquiry.

The aptly-named “Hellfire” missile is a ubiquitous feature of the “war on terror”. What’s less well-known is that my old college, University College London (UCL), has serious money invested in one of the companies that helps to build them.

Last year, an investigation by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) revealed that University College London has £845,530 worth of shares in Cobham PLC, which makes components for the Hellfire. A further £746,097 was invested in another blandly-named weapons manufacturer, Smiths Group. With these two investments, UCL has earned itself the dubious honour, according to CAAT, of having more money tied up in the arms trade than any other UK university.

For an institution that promises an “education for global citizenship“, aims to contribute to “the resolution of global problems“, and claims the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as its spiritual father, this seems especially bizarre.

The nature of the modern arms trade is complex and fragmented. We can’t know for sure that the particular missiles used in the Bajaur air strike contained Cobham’s components. But neither can we rule it out. If the survivors are telling the truth, then it’s possible that the hellfire that rained down on that Pakistani school last November, killing 82 people, was funded, in part, by UCL.

Hellfire missiles have been used widely both in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, too, the Apache helicopter and F16 fighter, which Smiths Group helps to manufacture. The Hawk jet, for which the company supplies weapons system components, has been sold to some of the most insidious regimes in the world. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe deployed them during his country’s involvement in the apocalyptic war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indonesia’s Suharto used them to bomb civilians during the vicious occupation of East Timor.

Malcolm Grant, UCL’s Provost, has defended the college’s investments by pointing out that the two companies also manufacture non-military products, and that neither produces an entire weapons system singlehandedly. But to those on the receiving end of the weapons that Smiths Group and Cobham PLC help to make, these facts are unlikely to be much consolation.

The impact of the arms trade contrasts sharply with UCL’s proud history of promoting humanitarian principles and opposing all forms of discrimination. According to the British Medical Journal, 85% of major conflicts since the second world war have taken place in poor countries – while the vast majority of weapons is exported by rich nations. Of the hundreds of thousands killed in war across the globe every year, most are civilians, and most live in the developing world. Alongside all the other human costs, the disruption caused by conflict inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. Perhaps the best way for UCL to start resolving “global problems” would be to stop participating in them.


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