Peace Matters Index

close the deso

ONLINE contents

- a real champaign moment
- a park named arndt
- life imprisonment for desertion
- homeland security
- military lessons
- second coming
- close the deso
- remembering Harry and Allen

- compled issue pdf

‘Successive Customer Satisfaction Surveys of the UK defence industry revealed that over 75% of arms export orders would not have been achieved without the assistance of DESO’.
The breadth of these sales is staggering. In the first quarter of 2005 alone, UK arms were licensed for export to more than 100 countries. The existence of conflict, human rights abuses or development concerns continue to be irrelevant to DESO's arms sales drive

2006 marks the 40th anniversary of the Defence Export Services Organisation. The DESO was set up in 1965, by Harold Wilson’s government following a commissioned report to advise on an arms export promotion strategy. This was a time when the UK was a major arms supplier second only to the USA. Stiff competition from USSR, France and the US began to reduce the UK’s share. In his report Donald Stokes, former managing director of British Leyland, urged that the best way to reverse this trend was to create ‘a small but very high-powered central arms sales organisation in the Ministry of Defence’; one that should be run by an industrialist with the support of a senior civil servant and a military deputy. Stokes recommended a staff of 15-20, but this has now grown to some 500. 400 in London with another 100 in offices in 17 countries around the world.

Then as now the Labour government faced two ways without any apparent discomfort. The Defence Secretary Denis Healey told Parliament that ‘While the Government attaches the highest importance to making progress in the field of arms control and disarmament, we must also take what practical steps we can to ensure that this country does not fail to secure its rightful share of this valuable commercial market’. Unconcerned by the contradictions in this statement, Healey proceeded to implement the findings of the Stokes Report and by July 1966, the 'central arms sales organisation' which Stokes had recommended was established in the Ministry of Defence. The unit became known as the Defence Sales Organisation and kept the name until 1985 when, with the completion of arms industry privatization, it was changed to the Defence Export Services Organisation. This was, apparently, a ‘more accurate reflection of its revised function’.

The DESO exists to sell arms for companies and to lobby for arms exports within government. It identifies potential opportunities for arms sales, then works with the companies and other elements of government to push for deals. DESO appears uninhibited by ongoing conflicts, human rights abuses, or pressing development needs. Nor is it motivated by international security or the 'defence' of the UK. It focuses purely on arms company sales and profits. DESO acts as a state-sponsored marketing department for arms companies, but its importance goes far beyond that. Its position and role within Whitehall means that the arms industry's vested interests are relentlessly promoted across government.

Through DESO, the UK taxpayer subsidises the export of arms into areas of conflict and to governments that abuse human rights. The trade in military equipment also damages economic development at each of global, regional and local economic levels.

Time to close the DESO
Preparations are underway for the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review in which the Treasury assesses the needs of each department. It is possible that DESO could be singled out for attention on the basis that it is a waste of hundreds of civil service posts, is against the public interest, and undermines much less well resourced initiatives on counter-proliferation and conflict resolution. The arguments are clear; what remains to be seen is whether these arguments, together with pressure from the public, can counter the disproportionate influence of the arms lobby and persuade the government to shut DESO.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade has launched a petition calling on the government to close the Defence Export Services Organisation and not to transfer its functions elsewhere in the public sector or to allocate public funds to enable them to be undertaken in the private sector. You can find it at


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