University Arms Deal Exposed

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The University of Southampton currently owns 9,100 shares in arms company BAE Systems, the Wessex Scene has discovered.

Despite an “ethical policy” which prohibits investment in tobacco companies, the University is a shareholder in a company described by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) as the second largest manufacturer of arms in the world.

BAE Systems produce a range of military products- equipment, weapons, software and training- and exports them indiscriminately to over 100 countries worldwide. In the past they have supplied regimes in countries such as Turkey, at a time when the military was used in the oppression and slaughter of Kurdish people; Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, during his military operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Saudi Arabia, a country condemned by Amnesty International as having “a persistent pattern of gross human rights abuses”, and notoriously to Indonesia, where the military was used to slaughter civilians in East Timor in the late 1990s. BAE also supply the parts for Israel’s F-16 bombers which bombarded Palestine in January.

The Wessex Scene learned about the university’s investment from Malcolm Ace, Director of Finance, University of Southampton in August. He valued the shares in BAE at less than £30,000, a tiny percentage of the university’s overall investments (worth around £8 million) and remarked that this made them so small they were “neither here nor there”. Nonetheless, they do represent both financial support and an implicit endorsement of a company whose business fuels conflict and suffering all over the world. If they are as unimportant as our Director of Finance claimed, it would presumably not hurt the university financially if they were dropped.

The university’s ethical investment policy also seems to present a contradiction. It was described by Ace as prohibiting investment in any company “whose primary purpose is in the tobacco market”. This policy was developed in the mid-nineties with the Dean of Medicine, and proves that the university is prepared to take the ethics of a company into account before investing. If the university considers the tobacco market unethical because cigarettes are addictive and potentially deadly, then investment in arms is hard to justify.

There are few conflicts around the globe that are not supplied in some way by the international arms trade. Although attempts have been made to regulate it, experienced dealers can find loopholes by passing weapons through ‘third countries’ to banned destinations, forging paperwork or using arms brokers who are capable of exploiting weaknesses in the system.

In addition to this, once the arms are sold, it is difficult to say where they will go next. Consequently, arms can quite easily find their way into the hands of child soldiers, criminal gangs or murderous dictators. The arms trade has also become a major cause of world poverty, diverting state spending in the third world away from providing better education, health care and clean water. It is an industry that deals in human suffering, where making profit is more important than people’s lives. To call our policy ethical, surely we need to end our ties with the arms industry?

While Southampton is by no means one of the worst offenders in terms of arms investment (Oxford, Cambridge, Swansea and Liverpool universities all own more that £1 million pounds worth of arms trade shares), our affiliation with BAE goes deeper than mere investment. In 2004 the School of Electronics and Computer Sciences signed a multi-million pound research agreement with them, described by the university’s own website as ‘marking the start of an important new strategic partnership’. This deal involved both research into the development of new technology and providing education and training courses to groom graduates for future employment.

Many students and academics are likely to find these links disturbing. We should be an academic centre, not a business, and it is part of our responsibility as such to have ethical and moral standards. Profiting from death and the exploitation of violent conflict surely flies in the face of everything that we, both as human beings and as an institution, should stand for. Surely we should condemn a company such as BAE rather than provide them with investment, research and future employees. The time may well have come therefore for the university to extend its ethical investment policy from tobacco to arms companies and break our ties with BAE.

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