This week, Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, asked David Cameron a somewhat troubling question in light of the refugee crisis.
At prime minister's questions, she asked:
The ongoing harrowing refugee crisis is fuelled by conflict, which in turn is powered in part by the global arms trade.
The UK has supplied the weapons being used in many areas from which people are now fleeing, including Yemen and Libya.
In the week that London will once again host the largest arms fair in the world, is it not time for the Government to recognise the link between arms sales and the terrible tragedy that we see unfolding around us?
Cameron’s response was as follows:
First, we have some of the strictest rules anywhere in the world for selling arms to other countries. If the hon. Lady thinks that the reason why so many people are fleeing Syria is something to do with the arms trade, the fact is that it is because Assad is butchering his own people and because we have an Islamist extremist, terrorist organisation running a large part of two countries—Iraq and Syria.
Those are the problems that we have to confront, rather than pretending it is about something else.
So who is right?
In March of this year, the UK government was found in a report by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls to have supplied £5.2bn worth of arms export licenses to countries listed as being of “human rights concern” by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Russia.
The committee urged the government to be "significantly more cautious" in the handing out of export licenses and said:
The Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time.
Lucas was referring to the Defence & Security Equipment International event, coming to the ExCeL arena in London between 15-18 September 2015.
The event, which is not listed in ExCeL’s events page, boasts on its own site that it will be host to “the entire defence and security industry to source the latest equipment and systems, develop international relationships, and generate new business opportunities".
It also trumpets “1,500 international exhibitors – an unrivalled range of suppliers from 121 countries” and “unbeatable networking - featuring the entire defence and security supply chain in one place”.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) provides some data on exports of arms and other controlled goods approved by the UK government, currently estimating the total value of export licences since 2014 to be £8,282,044,966, a figure which is likely to be incomplete.
Andrew Smith of CAAT said:
The refugee crisis is showing us the human cost of war and conflict. It is shameful that the UK government is rolling out the red carpet for arms dealers and despots - helping to fuel conflict across the world - at the same time as it is refusing entry to refugees fleeing wars.
Side note: Prior to asking her question, David Cameron accidentally referred to Caroline Lucas as a "right hon. gentleman" in relation to another matter, assuming the MP for Brighton Pavillion to be male, much to the consternation of the House.