Tom Sykes explores the ethical problems with Portsmouth University’s ongoing involvement with the international arms trade.
In 1969, Professor Noam Chomsky joined a commission to investigate the financing of his university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A prescient and forthright critic of the Vietnam War, Chomsky was shocked to discover that the US Defense Department was directly funding research at MIT into counterinsurgency tactics. Such tactics were routinely brutal and bloody, as investigative journalist Nick Turse concluded in his 2013 study Kill Anything That Moves: ‘Civilians, including women and children, were killed for running from soldiers or helicopter gunships that had fired warning shots, or being in a village suspected of sheltering Viet Cong.’ The truth about MIT’s collusion in these atrocities provoked furious protests from students and a small number of academics, including Chomsky himself.
Murky alliances between the military and the academy continue today, and happen closer to home than Massachusetts. A 2008 Study War No More report found that, in the preceding five years, 26 British universities had been engaged in 1,900 military research projects worth £725 million. Two thirds of this work was sponsored or in other ways supported by the arms companies Rolls Royce, QinetiQ and BAE Systems.
Closer to home still, the University of Portsmouth is becoming increasingly “militarised” in this way too. An August 2014 Freedom of Information Request submitted by student journalist Kinnan Zaloom revealed that the University had received £470,960 from BAE Systems and £23,516 from GKN Aerospace for ‘industrial consultancy and industrial research’ over the previous three financial years. Beneficiaries of this largesse included projects in computing, civil engineering and aerospace design. Details of the University’s own holdings in the arms industry could not be divulged because, according to the official response to Zaloom’s request, the ‘University’s investments are made by a trust fund on the University’s behalf‘. Such information has been available in the past, though: Ben Fishwick of the Galleon found that, in 2008, the University held £20,000 of shares in BAE Systems.
The University frequently collaborates with arms companies on a range of courses, conferences, job fairs, open evenings and outreach programmes. Now BAE Systems – along with QinetiQ – are working with the University and Portsmouth City Council to establish a new technical college in September 2016.
In a speech last October, Minister for Portsmouth Matthew Hancock re-asserted the importance of the ‘defence’ – the favoured euphemism of arms trade apologists – business for the city. But it’s worth considering the true nature of this business and whether a university – a place of humane learning – should be so closely associated with corporations that deal in death, destruction and torture across the globe.
According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade, BAE Systems sells military technology to some of the most corrupt and autocratic nations in the world, amongst them Bahrain and Qatar. Furthermore, those like Matthew Hancock who believe that the war industry helps keep Britain at peace are misguided: BAE has long been dealing arms to Saudi Arabia (including £4 billion last year for 72 Eurofighter jets), the world’s number one exporter of radical Wahhabi Islamic ideology. As David Gardiner of the Financial Times explains, ‘Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers’. By arming and strengthening the fundamentalist government in Riyadh, BAE and other British firms are indirectly helping the growth of ISIL and increasing the likelihood of future terrorist attacks in Britain.
If certain developing world dictatorships kill and subjugate their own people, certain Western liberal democracies kill and subjugate people in the developing world. BAE Systems will gladly do business with either kind of regime. In the 2000s, it acquired two large US armoured car concerns in order to profit from the US- and British-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost 9,000 coalition troops and up to a million Afghan and Iraqi civilians and combatants have been killed in these conflicts. Moreover, the Iraq adventure breached all major international laws and treaties, and was condemned as criminal by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and numerous legal experts.
It’s a dubious accolade, but BAE Systems can claim to be one of the most corrupt operations within an industrial sector that is responsible for 40% of all the corporate corruption in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, to ‘grease the wheels’ of its £43 billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, BAE bribed officials, middlemen and even members of the Saudi royal family. After an eight-year inquiry by the Serious Fraud Office, the firm was forced to pay over £300 million in fines to the US and UK governments.
Another Portsmouth University partner, GKN Aerospace, sold helicopters, armoured vehicles and water cannon to the Indonesian government the better to repress pro-democracy protests in the late 1990s. Over a thousand people were killed in that unrest. Despite robust EU arms embargoes, GKN’s subsidiary, FPT Industries Ltd, produced fuel tank systems for Indian ALH helicopters provided to Burma, a deeply unjust and authoritarian state that has barely been improved by Western investment. When GKN endowed a new professorship at Cambridge University in 2000, the then-head of the student union, Mary Webber, described GKN as a ‘company of very dubious moral standing’.
We should ask the same question of our university that Webber asked of hers: How can we reasonably meet our own equality and diversity objectives when we are so cosy with organisations who care little for international law and human rights? Kinnan Zaloom, who has tried to question senior management about the University’s arms links, puts it this way: ‘We, as students and staff, should call upon the University to follow our own ethical policy, vision and values.’
We need to think in far more morally consistent terms. If I, for example, as a lecturer at Portsmouth University sold a pistol to a delinquent in the street which he then used in an armed robbery, I would likely go to prison and surely lose my job. But if I were the CEO of a company that sells weapons far more devastating than pistols to powerful men who maim and slaughter large swathes of innocent people, I’d be a multi-millionaire, lauded in the press for my entrepreneurial acumen and warmly welcomed to do business with Portsmouth University any time.
So why don’t we apply the same ethical standards across the board? The historian Howard Zinn has argued that modern technological warfare disengages servicemen and women from the deadly consequences of their actions. As a US Air Force bombardier during World War II, he ‘saw no people, heard no screams, saw no blood, no torn limbs … Up there in the sky, I was just doing my job.’ I fear that within Portsmouth University there’s a similar perception about the military-industrial sector. When we pocket those grants and host those knowledge transfer evenings, we don’t hear the screams or see the blood of the victims of the arms trade, located as they are on the other side of the world, conveniently remote from our conscience.
However, as was the case with MIT in the late ’60s, students tend to be less blasé about the issue. Over the last few years, a series of demonstrations and occupations in campuses across Britain have prompted the universities of East Anglia, Cardiff and Queen Mary, amongst others, to divest their holdings in arms companies. The same strategy could work here at Portsmouth, where students are so angry about the camouflaging of their campus that they successfully campaigned to cancel a BAE Systems recruitment event.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.