University of Edinburgh arms investment policy denounced by activists

The University of Edinburgh announced a new armaments position last week following a sustained student campaign against arms investments, a move that was swiftly protested by activists as an inadequate response to demands.

The agreement, part of a review of its Responsible Investment policy by The University Court last Monday, comprised a promise from the University that it “has not and will never” invest in what it termed ‘controversial weapons’.

It defined such weapons as “anti-personnel mines, biological weapons, chemical weapons, cluster weapons, depleted uranium ammunition, nuclear weapons and white phosphorous weapons.”

The move was lauded by university officials as a bold step toward social responsibility.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal, praised the decision as “an important phase in our review” and said it “demonstrates the University’s commitment to responsible investment.”

He continued: “As well as our divestment from these major companies and our ongoing commitment to zero investment in manufacturers of controversial weapons, we will continue to examine the positive case for additional investments in low carbon and renewable technologies.”

Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) Vice President Services (VPS) Urte Macikene also expressed cautious support.

“I’m pleased the university is clarifying its stance against investment in controversial weapons”, she said.

“There is always more to be done in pursuit of ethical investment, and I look forward to working closely with the University in taking forwards a review of the ethical investment policy as a whole.”

But activists were quick to condemn the motion as insufficient.

Student campaigners from People and Planet and Amnesty International characterised the move as “nowhere near good enough” and a “cowardly halfway house”, accusing the University of Edinburgh of “flouting its moral obligations”.

At issue for activists is the range of arms categories the University will continue to invest in arms that it does not consider controversial, such as drones.

A review of the University’s investments by The Student found multiple examples of continued investments in arms companies.

Among the companies The University of Edinburgh will continue to invest in is Meggit plc, a drones manufacturer used extensively in Afghanistan and implicated widely in civilian deaths, which also sells weapons to Bahrain, a country with a record of human rights violations.  The University held £621,000 worth of Meggit stocks this year, according to a list of endowment investments from last spring reviewed by The Student.

Martin Marietta is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the American military manufaturer, and is a prominent manufacturer of intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The University owns £745,000 worth of stock in that company.

Rolls-Royce has deep investments in military aircraft and seacraft.  The University invested £507,000 of its endowment in Rolls-Royce stock.

“No such thing as ‘uncontroversial arms'”

Activists point to the range of weaponry companies still remaining in the investment portfolio as indicators that the University failed to respond adequately to student demands.

Kirsty Haigh, student campaigner for Edinburgh University People and Planet, heavily critiqued the University’s commitment to ethical investment.

In a blog post for Invest Ethically, Haigh wrote: “Let’s be clear, there’s no such thing as uncontroversial arms. Arms kill people whether or not they are classed as controversial.”

Speaking toThe Student, Haigh said: “At the moment the University have only divested from the tip of the ice berg. Natural gas, oil, military drones and all other weapons kill people and harm the planet too.

“The University need to be fully divesting from all companies involved in the extraction and production of fossil fuels and all arms manufacturers and dealers,” she added.

“Especially with arms companies their sole purpose is to profit from destruction and that is not something the University should be fuelling.”

Jovan Rydder, student campaigner for Edinburgh University Amnesty International agreed.

He told The Student: “I expect our university to share a strong contempt for the promotion and legitimisation of violence and I am astounded that given the opportunity it has decided to maintain its complicity in the production of tools of war.”

But not everyone in the divestment community was as critical.

Macikene, who campaigned for her role calling for “divestment from arms, fossil fuels, and conflict minerals”, says casting blame wholly on the university is an oversimplification.

“I believe this is high on the agenda of key players in the university and I’ll be making sure it stays there,” she told The Student.

“In the meantime,” she added, “I’m pleased the university is taking the opportunity to clarify its stance towards arms investment.”

Key to interpreting the announcement, Macikene argues, is understanding fact that it isn’t final.  The announcement is part of a “broader policy review” to be determined in the coming weeks, she told The Student.

She said: “We have agreed that a proposal for what process the review will take will be brought to the next Central Management Group, which meets on 6th October.  It will likely take the form of a working group with representation from various levels of management and EUSA.”

“Non-military applications”

University officials have defended their investments as balanced and fair.

In an interview with The Student, David Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility, argued that the University’s investment in drones was not as simple as activists have portrayed it.

We feel drones have important non-military applications that mean we must judge issues case by case and we keep investments under constant review,” he told The Student.

“However we don’t invest in companies whose business is substantially in armaments.”

Asked by The Student about the University’s stated definition of ‘controversial weapons’, Gorman said: “Put simply, controversial weapons do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians and in our view would clearly not be in line with the values of the University to be invested in.

“This is why 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.”

Gorman, the first official to hold the Director of Social Responsibility post created in 2013, acknowledged the mounting criticism from student activists, saying: “We recognise that there are a wide range of strongly held and genuinely felt views on investment issues across the University staff, student and alumni community.”

But he pointed to the University’s “long and successful track record of taking action on responsible investment” as an indication of its good intentions.

He said: “The University has had a responsible investment policy in place since 2003 and was the first university in Europe and only the second in the world to sign the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). There can surely be no clearer sign of the University’s commitment to action than to have signed these principles and to have devoted a great deal of time and attention to making them a reality.”

But activists maintain they will only be satisfied with full divestment.

“If they seriously want to be socially responsible then they need to end all of these investments,” Kirsty Haigh, of People & Planet, told The Student. 

“We’ve said our campaign won’t be stopping until the University divests from it all and we mean that.”

A separate push to ban arms companies from networking in EUSA venues is set to be voted on at the Student Council Meeting on Thursday, October 1.

The Student is conducting a detailed analysis of the University of Edinburgh’s investment in armaments companies, as detailed by information released under the Freedom of Information Act.  More to follow.

Image: Paolo Bayas/US Navy

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted a blog post written in Invest Ethically by Kirsty Haigh.  She wrote, “there’s no such thing as uncontroversial arms,” not “there’s no such thing as controversial arms”. 

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