Excuses In Our Sleep: Libya, the Arms Trade, Universities and the Political Economy of Human Rights

A common purpose
Gains value as a common goal
Let’s flail together
If we must flail at all.
Deep in the heart of the battle
Caught in the switch of the flow
Freedom from notes, she sells freedom from songs
She sells freedom and arms Eritrea.
I could have made these excuses in my sleep
As if anyone had doubted them at all
But if we arm Eritrea we won’t have to pay her
And everyone can go home.

Future Of The Left, ‘Arming Eritrea’ (2009)

This now fairly-widely disseminated video of Saif Gaddafi brandishing his militarised manhood and promising death can only fuel the paroxysms of guilt and denial afflicting those previously enamoured of him. Not a topic to be neglected, fersure, and one that will be returned here at The Disorder Of Things soon (I promise). But there is another element at play, and one rather more materially linked to massacre and repression. Where are the guns coming from?

Last month, The Guardian engaged in one of its periodic moments of data-explication, borrowing somewhat from Dan O’Huiginn to set out which regimes get UK arms exports, and how much. Since David Cameron is unashamed in his claims that we’re merely helping democracies protect themselves (barring minor hiccups), the numbers and relations make interesting reading. The conventional (if perhaps flawed) metric for such political goods as freedom and democracy is that provided by Freedom House. The top five Middle East and North African beneficiaries of UK military export licences in 2009-2010 were Algeria (£270 million), Saudi Arabia (£64 million), Libya (almost £34 million), the United Arab Emirates (almost £16 million) and Jordan (£12 million).

Every single one is listed as ‘Not Free’ in the Freedom House Index for 2010.

Libya got the lowest score possible (although this was already several years into its rapprochement with the forces of progress and human dignity and some two years after Saif had concluded his inquiries into democracy and civil society). Kuwait, championed by Cameron as the example of the good guys, comes about half way down the list of ‘Partly Free’ countries but is only seventh in line for our largesse. Morocco and Lebanon both count as ‘Partly Free’ too and come 13th and 14th for UK exports respectively. The only people who got nothing at all were the Iranians, although Iran is freer than Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya (and on a par with Tunisia). The only ‘Free’ country awash with our arms is Israel, although the fear in that case is hardly that weapons will be used excessively with its own territorial jurisdiction.

It does not take a regression analysis to show that the Prime Minister is ‘inadvertently misleading the House‘ on this point and that his sudden discovery of naughtiness-by-proxy is a bloody sham. Moreover, it intimates an interesting research question, following work on the political economy of human rights by Noam Chomsky and Edward Nerman (almost completely neglected, even by Chomsky fans) which claimed to show that US aid from the 1950s to the 1970s was positively correlated with improvements in ‘investment climate’ and negatively correlated with the maintenance of democracy and human rights (someone drop me a line if you’re interested in following this up).

This is all even more interesting because there is something vaguely unpalatable about talking about the arms trade. Those who campaign against it, although surely replete with quality data, are regarded as a little unhinged and unrealistic. The absence of much serious discussion of this particular transnational network is also rather puzzling for a discipline like IR, which generally prides itself on how much it understands the geopolitical dynamics of global power and the realities of war and peace.

The exception is Anna Stavrianakis, who has been working on these issues for some years. As she argues, more attention is needed to the ways in which the promotion of ‘development’ policy feeds into military-industrial-governmental complexes. The connections are intimate indeed. Although now replaced by the seemingly identical UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) existed only formally as part of the government rather than industry. Indeed, every head of the DESO since 1984 had been seconded to that role from within the arms industry. The resultant complicity with corruption drew its share of public attention, but this too risks a diversion of focus from the underlying (and legitimated) sociological and political economic networks themselves to particular acts of illegality.

As comforting as this attention to civilian-military relations is for us knowledge-producers, at some point this conversation does bring us back to the University system. The degree of complicity is not minor. At the most general level, there are the investments. Although some campaigns against administrations investing in BAE and its ilk appear to have been successful, it is unclear (at least to me) how many universities still invest at one remove in arming repressive regimes, or even what ‘disinvestment’ consists of. At the LSE, for example, Howard Davies would maintain that the school did not invest ‘directly’ in arms since its portfolio was managed by a third party.

Then there are the more direct connections, as when a company pays directly for research by a University centre or donates sums towards projects. This will be trickier territory, since the money is flowing in the other direction now, and defenders can always claim that, barring attached strings, the source of the cash matters not at all. It will surely influence the direction, or at least the topics, relevant for investigation but the lines of funding will be clearer and the time spent on such projects circumscribed.

Most perniciously of all, there is the creeping place of ‘impact’ in these relationships. As the ‘interface’ with business becomes more prominent, both in discourse around the place of thought in society and in the very real funding streams sustaining institutions of learning, the potential role for the arms trade increases. As Philip Moriarty so cogently argues, the now banal common-sense of government talk about universities is that they should repay their debt to The Taxpayer through social goods. And social goods are synonymous with ‘increased competitiveness’ and other indicators of economic health which reduce to increased profit for private businesses and their stockholders. Who can naturally also help universities in a rare symbiotic beauty, largely thanks to their superior ‘efficiency’ and the like.

The connection on this front is likely to be much more nebulous but also much more thorough-going, particularly under a regime in which every academic will have to demonstrate in measurable terms how their research has fed into the projects and profits of those outside the ivory tower. The consensus seems to be that a general contribution to public debate will not be permissible.  The direct adoption of work by an identifiable company (ideally channelled through those offices of the university dealing with intellectual properties) would be ideal. We would do well to ponder what such a win-win situation might look like where the research area is terrorism, foreign policy, cultural studies or the relationship between corporate interests and human rights.


5 thoughts on “Excuses In Our Sleep: Libya, the Arms Trade, Universities and the Political Economy of Human Rights

  1. Pingback: www.wwthekingdom.wordpress.com « The-islamic-bak-magic and The Kingdom/themovie for jamie foxx. @the RPG scene. bel bak, belbak

  2. Great post Paul – very interesting and informative. Selfishly turning this towards an area I’m more comfortable, I wonder what this means for responsibility and accountability. As you say, people like Davies will claim that they are not “directly” responsible for arms trades. Likewise, states and companies indulging in arms trades with autocratic regimes will claim they are not “directly” responsible, or more likely, not responsible at all, for deaths in the autocratic regimes they supply arms to.

    One of the most worrisome elements of the UN Security Council’s referral of the situation in Libya to the ICC was that it restricted the Court’s jurisdiction to February 15th 2011, meaning that the Court could not bring forth, as evidence, any of the arms deals or cozy relationships between Gaddafi and Western states (vhttp://justiceinconflict.com/2011/03/14/the-west-and-libya-the-politically-imposed-limits-of-justice/) – sorry for the self-promotion, but it’s so *you* read it!

    It seems to me that responsibility, if not accountability, should go farther than those who use direct violence. As it stands, our approach to accountability privileges both direct violence and individual guilt. Yet, in numerous cases (like Libya), no individual could have perpetrated direct violence without the indirect support from outside sources including Western sources.

    Thanks again for this post – I thoroughly enjoyed it!


    • Too right, and thanks for the link (turns out you were on to the arms stuff way before me, but I haven’t decided whether that means I should read you more or read you less. OK, I’ll read you more).

      The scepticism about the purpose and capacity of the ICC is particularly important because they are some fairly naive arguments circulating for the intervention which ground themselves in the justificatory garb of law. Juan Cole, otherwise excellent and certainly mounting a strong defence of the intervention, makes much of the ‘legality’ and ‘authorisation’ gifted by the UNSC, which to his mind makes this an entirely different kind of operation from the one critics are attacking.

      There are clearly several levels here. First is the failure to see the Security Council as a political body in the most basic sense that it is constitutionally predisposed to favour the powerful, who use it to further their interests. Second is the explicit bias of the kind you mention, in which particular actions by particular actors simply get written out of the responsibility script. Third is the implicit bias, perhaps the most insidious of all, as in situations where the actual legal case and activity of those involved in pursuing it is decent and honest and thorough and even contributes materially to human flourishing, but where the old hierarchies reassemble themselves in terms of who gets selected for justice in the first place.

      Which is all by way of agreement. I do wonder about the formal capacities of law though. I understand that the ICC on the current authorisation couldn’t look into arms and national interest type stuff, but could cases not be mounted at other levels? What potential role for European human rights legislation, the ICJ etc?


  3. Pingback: The Qaddafi Controversy « The Disorder Of Things

  4. Thanks for the reply Paul.

    I’ll just focus on the last bit, about what capacities of international law exist to examine/bring to light these types of issues.

    First of all, I think we need to distinguish between political responsibility and criminal accountability. By bringing to light evidence about the all-too-cozy relationship between Western leaders and Gaddafi, I think the ICC (or any court or media or blog) can contribute to political accountability of Western leaders/university heads, etc. without needing to find criminal intent or mode or responsibility.

    We need to better understand that Courts create history when they adjudicate and that when their jurisdictions are curtailed like in the case of the ICC and Libya, the histories they produce will be remarkably skewed. Until a revisionist historical period emerges, the world will think that Gaddafi was a “mistake” or a “bad apple” rather than a man who went from international pariah to international partner of the West to perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    Secondly, there has been a controversial development in international criminal law that I think could plausibly look into these sources of indirect support for individuals/states who perpetrate international crimes – Joint Criminal Enterprise. It is incredibly controversial because in one of its modes it stipulates, by way of example, that: if you and 3 others robbed a bank and your personal intention was only to rob a bank but during the process one of your partners shot and killed a bank employee, all 4 of you would be guilty of murder. JCE reverts traditional modes of culpability from being vertical (command responsibility) to be horizontal. Not surprisingly, critics have dubbed it “Just Convict Everyone”.

    Long story short, JCE, at least theoretically, would allow for those indirectly supportive or involved in international crimes to be brought to account. Thus, providing a bullet or giving a dollar to buy a bullet to an individual known to be autocrat and to have murdered before and who murders again makes the provider guilty of murder. I don’t actually agree with going this far. I don’t think that Davies or Cameron are guilty of murder in the same way that Gaddafi is. But I do think there is a need for political accountability and the basic notion within JCE that we cannot separate indirect support from direct conduct seems to be a good place to start.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s