Does the University of Edinburgh profit from bombing campaigns like the one in Syria?

Investments disclosures reveal holdings in the arms trade.

Editor’s note: This post is a guest contribution from James Morrissey, it reflects his personal views, not an occupation’s stated position.

There is renewed concern amongst students and activists about the University of Edinburgh’s financial investments in the arms trade after the recent escalation of the conflict in Syria. University representatives have claimed that “We are committed to using our finances to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world”[1]. However, investment to any degree in the arms trade can’t be considered compatible with this goal. Kirsty Haigh, student campaigner for Edinburgh People and Planet, has argued for total divestment from the arms trade as well as the fossil fuel industry for all educational institutes.

“The moral arguments for divestment are obvious. They are publicly funded institutions, and should be working to benefit the wider world around them. This means that their investments ought to go towards industries that enhance and contribute to social wellbeing, not ones whose operations are destroying the planet and contributing to war and conflict”, Haigh wrote in a post for NUS Connect[2].

The University has faced extended pressure to invest ethically from student activists and other groups[3], including the occupation of Charles Stewart House[4], and has already announced its intentions to divest from the fossil fuel industry. It reaffirmed its commitment earlier this year, promising that all fossil fuel holdings would be gone by the year 2021[5]. However, its promises regarding investments in the arms trade are less reassuring because they rest upon a dubious distinction between different kinds of munitions.

Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility, stated to The Student that “The University has committed never to invest in companies involved in nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster weapons, depleted uranium ammunition, white phosphorus incendiary bombs or antipersonnel landmines”[6]. His reasoning was that these ’controversial weapons’ do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and so are not in keeping with ethical investment.

This position fails to meet the concerns of students and activists.  The University’s definition of ‘controversial’ was shown to be too limited after it was revealed that it still held investments in Meggitt plc, which manufactures drones that have caused substantial civilian casualties in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia[7]. As of its latest disclosure, the University of Edinburgh continues to hold investments in Lockheed Martin subsidiary Martin Marietta, which manufactures intercontinental ballistic missiles[8]. The University’s website states that updated information will be published as of six weeks after January 31st and July 31st every year, but no disclosures for 2018 have yet been made[9]. The Finance Department has been contacted multiple times for further information but none has been received.

Recent events have shown that even munitions which are excluded by a reasonable definition of ‘controversial weapons’ can be used for controversial aims. Prime Minister Theresa May committed British forces to join France and the US in bombing Syria on the 14th of April, before securing the approval of Parliament. The air strikes were later condemned by UCU at the Scottish Trade Unions Conference in Aviemore on the 18th of April[10].

“The civil war in Syria – born out of the brutality with which Bashar al-Assad’s regime repressed the 2011 revolution – has so far killed over 400,000 people and displaced a further 11 million. Extending Western bombing campaigns will only inflict more death and misery,” said a representative from EIS-ULA at the conference[11].

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that the bombing campaign may not have been legal, and that the PM should consult Parliament before conducting strikes in future: “This legally questionable action risks escalating further, as US Defence Secretary James Mattis has admitted, an already devastating conflict and therefore makes real accountability for war crimes and use of chemical weapons less, not more likely”[12]. In 2013, David Cameron suffered a loss in credibility after he was defeated in a parliamentary vote on air strikes in Syria[13], raising the possibility that May went forwards without approval to avoid a similarly damaging defeat.

The past conduct of the UK government in pursuing aggressive foreign policy, even when approved by Parliament and considered legal, undermines claims that the ‘controversial weapons’ definition can resolve moral concerns. The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war found that “The UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort”[14] and further, that intelligence findings justifying the invasion “Were presented with a certainty that was not justified”[15].

The only way for the University of Edinburgh to ensure that it remains faithful to its stated aims to pursue ethical investment and use its resources to make responsible contributions to the world is to scrap its stance on ‘controversial weapons’ and announce its intentions to divest entirely from the arms trade.

A rally to oppose bombing Syria is planned by the Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition at 12 midday at the east end of Princes St. on Saturday the 21st of April. See Facebook for more information: https://www.facebook.com/EdinburghStopTheWarCoalition

UPDATE: The University has disclosed its investments as of January 2018 since this blog was first posted.

Photo credit: Hassan Ammar.


[1] http://www.studentnewspaper.org/people-and-planet-stage-halloween-themed-protest-around-central-campus-buildings/

[2] https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/articles/don-t-dither-divest-it-s-time-to-get-active

[3] http://www.studentnewspaper.org/people-and-planet-stage-halloween-themed-protest-around-central-campus-buildings/

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/edinburgh-university-student-protesters-occupy-building-over-fossil-fuel-divestment-a6969441.html

[5] https://www.ed.ac.uk/about/sustainability/themes/responsible-investment/reviews/fossil-fuels-2018

[6] http://www.studentnewspaper.org/university-of-edinburgh-arms-investment-policy-condemned-by-activists/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/world/asia/drone-strikes-reveal-uncomfortable-truth-us-is-often-unsure-about-who-will-die.html

[8] https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/list_of_investments_2017_m07_jul_31.pdf

[9] https://www.ed.ac.uk/finance/transparency/foi/investments

[10] https://scotlandstopwar.org/2018/04/18/emergency-motion-on-syria-at-stuc/

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/14/jeremy-corbyn-calls-syria-airstrikes-legally-questionable

[13] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23892783

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/06/iraq-inquiry-key-points-from-the-chilcot-report

[15] Ibid.

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