|ISSUE 54 SPRING 2007
- oppressed and vilified
IT IS now always easy to know when a campaign has reached a critical moment. The chance of a breakthrough can sometimes be missed. But I am confident that we are facing such a chance now. This is because of the public outrage that has been sparked by the Government's decision to curtail a corruption inquiry into BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms company.
The arms trade is the centre around which the wheels of militarism turn. To make profits, arms companies must perpetuate vicious cycles of violence and poverty. Such companies keep despots in power and fuel war by providing constant streams of weapons. Bribery leads to countries buying arms that they will never use. And every pound spent on bombs and bullets is a pound less for vaccines and school books.
The UK is the world's second biggest arms exporter, yet public opposition to the UK's role in the arms trade has soared in the last few months. The Government has made plain its subservience to the interests of BAE Systems, easily Britain's largest arms company (and the fourth largest in the world). As a result, more and more people are calling for an end to BAE's power.
BAE has always been unpopular, but criticism reached boiling point at the end of 2006. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had been investigating allegations that BAE was engaged in mulitmillion pound corruption. It was alleged that BAE bribed Saudi princes with luxury cars, hotels and prostitutes to secure a massive arms deal known as Al-Yamamah. Last autumn, the SFO sought access to Swiss bank accounts and the media reported that they were close to a breakthrough. BAE's bosses flew into alarm, seeing their privileges and profits under threat.
That all changed on 14th December, when Attorney General Peter Goldsmith announced that the investigation had been dropped. The next day Tony Blair defended the decision, saying that the inquiry was harming UK-Saudi relations. He did not mention the Saudi regime's record of torture, tyranny, vicious sexism and persecution of religious minorities. Nor did he refer to the power that BAE has over the UK Government.
BAE is not simply one more unethical multinational. Some would say that it is in the premier league of powerful businesses in the UK. But this is not really true. BAE is the premier league.
The former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote in his diaries that BAE's bosses “appeared to have the key to the garden door at Number 10”. He never saw Blair take any decision to their disadvantage. Although only 0.2% of UK jobs depend on arms exports, the arms industry is subsidised with over £850 million of taxpayers' money every year. You may well ask why this is. The answer goes to the core of the real reason behind the curtailing of the corruption inquiry.
Through both public practices and private maneuverings arms companies have crept ever further into the heart of British Government. DESO (Defence Export Services Organisation) is an arms marketing agency run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It gives private arms traders unparalleled access to ministers. It has been reported that DESO boss Alan Garwood will return to his old company BAE after leaving the MoD's employment.
This is a blatant example of the ‘revolving door’ that allows a steady stream of ministers and civil servants to move to senior roles in the arms industry. It came as no surprise when the Defence Secretary admitted that BAE's chief lobbyist had been issued with an MoD security pass. These incestuous relationships have made it normal to put arms dealers' wishes ahead of public interest or the rule of law. So normal, it seems, that ministers have forgotten how this relationship appears to the public.
With the suspension of the corruption inquiry, the influence of arms companies has been put on display for all to see. BAE's bosses have now been exposed to the greatest threat of all: public opposition to their power.
Since the inquiry was dropped, Campaign Against Arms Trade has been flooded with messages of support. Over 130 NGOs, including the PPU, have signed a letter calling on the Government to re-open the inquiry. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has questioned the Government's behaviour and launched research into how the inquiry was dropped. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has suggested that the Government has harmed the UK's international reputation. Senior business people have expressed alarm at the effect on the image of British business. Journalists continue to unearth fresh material that makes the need for an inquiry obvious
One of the most exciting developments is the judicial review that is being sought jointly by CAAT and the Corner House, an NGO with an impressive record of tackling corruption. We aim to see the court declare that the decision to curtail the inquiry was unlawful, as it breached the OECD anti-bribery convention.
CAAT is mobilising public opinion, which is clearly outraged at BAE's role in the corridors of power. Through our Control BAE campaign, we are highlighting arms companies' influence within Government and the dangers of BAE as a company out of control. In February, BAE was defeated in court by CAAT after the company gained unfair access to a copy of CAAT's confidential legal advice. In May, BAE's bosses faced public anger both inside and outside their AGM.
We must act effectively if are to see the arms trade abolished. It is not a legitimate business that is being abused, but an industry whose very purpose is to profit from death and poverty. Those of us who live in the UK can have a huge impact on the world by ending our country's role in the arms trade. The most effective way to do this is to break the foul relationship between arms companies and elected Government. The public campaign to reopen the BAE-Saudi corruption inquiry can make this hope a reality.
I am confident that this campaign will be effective because of the support and participation of thousands of individuals. There are many ways in which you can join in. We would like all MPs to receive letters and e-mails from constituents encouraging them to sign the EDM (a sort of parliamentary petition) on the issue – it's surprising how many politicians are supportive. With our judicial review under way, CAAT is especially appreciative of donations. BAE will be the focus of Stop the Arms Trade Week from 2nd - 10th June, when activists up and down the country will organise all manner of local actions and events. On Sunday, 10th June, the CAAT Christian Network is organising a Day of Prayer, encouraging churches and other Christian groups to add their voices to the campaign.
By working together at this crucial moment of public outrage, we can bring about the day when BAE is no longer calling the shots.
Symon Hill is Press Officer at Campaign Against Arms Trade