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Far to the Southeast, in a coastal town named Hastings, the borough council is maintaining a top-secret military facility. The workers are sworn to silence. The building is kept rusty and overgrown. The tandem helicopters do their testing closer to France than England. And yet, the council members have no problem boasting about the site in public. I now find there is much the same problem here, in Lancaster.
For those first-year students who, like me, have no idea where local interests lie, Lancashire County Council is working with the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems, through Lancaster University. The match was made back in 2004, when BAE showed up to a corporate venturing conference in George Fox Lecture Theatre. Half a dozen students were taken to court for crashing the talks in protests. Since the Quaker Society (after whose pacifist founder the building is named) also discovered that BAE was present, not a single recruitment fair has taken place there.
Things picked up again several months ago, when Lancaster joined the GAMMA program. Now, researchers in our C&C department are helping to develop ‘autonomous systems’ for BAE platforms that can replace the human element in dangerous jobs. Primarily, the software is designed for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or drones, to sense, track, and remove “threats”. Despite the obvious military relevance here, working scenarios released by GAMMA show smiley stickmen using the high-tech UAVs for gardening. No corporation is prepared to openly defend the drones. Even the partner company Suave UAV Enterprises trades under “Suave Arial Photography”.
In return for our work, the whole project can only promise job creation “indirectly”. What’s more, although the project is being marketed for local companies, GAMMA held their third worldwide customer webinar recently. Using these forums, BAE may be starting to anticipate deals. Now is the time for our resident activists, LUAAT (Lancaster University Against the Arms Trade) – whose national equivalent was reportedly hacked by BAE – to make their stand. They won’t be alone: Amnesty International has championed several cases where drone strikes could constitute war crimes, while the United Nations have criticised the obscure decision-making behind Drone operations which have been used excessively by the Obama administration against sovereign countries where they believe there are terrorists. Modest estimates say that just one in ten Drone casualties was a targeted individual whereas David Killcullen former US Army adviser claims that Drones have had a 2% success rate at actually killing criminals. The collateral damage has been huge, including a grandmother who was killed in front of her nine year-old granddaughter this year in Pakistan.
So far, only Western democracies have faced questioning. Corporations like BAE, however, specialise in proliferating this technology. They have already made deals with regimes in Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and Libya, where human rights are rarely felt. Perhaps technology from Lancaster ends up in the drones marked ‘Made in China’ circling over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
To prevent another GAMMA project, the university must sever any other investments in BAE. Undoubtedly, every university has a price. Ours, to my frustration, is less than one percent of our total investment portfolio. Clearly, abandoning BAE would not bankrupt Lancaster. Moreover, the university has to come up with an ethical investment policy. What credibility is there in an organisation that informs students and advises governments but can’t write down one moral principle?
So many research-based universities have taken the step and found themselves with a responsible income. And the idea is more than popular. LUSU Council has already proposed, and resolved, to have the university devise an ethical investment policy. That was last year. This is not an issue that can fall by the wayside; the need for an ethical investment policy is more urgent than ever. Lancaster University should follow the lead of others and make morality a permanent fixture in its investments.