Andrew Feinstein was elected an ANC MP in South Africa in 1994. He resigned in 2001 in protest at the government’s refusal to allow an unfettered investigation into a £5bn arms deal. He chairs the Aids charity Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign, and is a director of the anti-corruption organisation Corruption Watch. He is the author of After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC; and his book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade was published by Penguin in 2012. Here Matt Kennard of AOAV interviews Andrew about his work on the arms trade.
Firstly, how did you become involved in the murky world of the arms industry?
So, I got involved in the arms trade completely involuntarily. I became a politician with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa at the time of our first democratic election in 1994. I was also the ranking ANC member in the main financial oversight committee, the Public Accounts Committee.
A report came to the committee about a huge arms deal that the democratic government had undertaken. The government took the decision to spend $10 billion on weapons that just weren’t needed, and that we barely use even today. On top of that, around three-hundred, million dollar bribes were paid to senior politicians, senior officials, and intermediaries. My committee investigated all of the government’s expenditure regarding the deal. So, this came to us, and it was clear to us that there was prima facie evidence of corruption, so we attempted to investigate it… And with everything else we had investigated previously – we had got Winnie Mandela to pay back money, and fired heads of departments for corruption – nobody interfered with us. On this one, I was told that there would be no investigation, and when I said that’s not how we work, the presidency forced me out of parliament.
So, I knew there was something off about the arms trade in general, and I was intrigued to continue to investigate the South African deal and what it was really about. I left the country after leaving parliament and moved to the UK, home to the biggest bribe payers on the deal – BAE Systems (now known as BAE). According to the Metropolitan Police, to win one contract they paid £115 million in bribes. They should never have won the contracts. Initially the contract was for a combined jet fighter trainer plane, but half way through the procurement process the Minister of Defence – a beneficiary of the above bribes – decided to split the contract into a jet fighter and a separate trainer plane, which was what BAE won. Yet on the shortlist that was drawn up, they didn’t even make it. Obviously, the minister, when he was told this, was furious – he told the technical committee to go back and find a shortlist that BAE was on. They were then fourth on a shortlist of four… But the combined offer from them and their partner SAR consisted of over double the required jets that the South African Air Force wanted, resulted in it becoming top of the shortlist.
The minister decided to exclude cost as a procurement criteria on what is still today, the most expensive contract the democratic South African government has ever signed. And when I realised the extent of what had happened I thought, wow – are we in South Africa particularly naïve and vulnerable? So when I got to the UK, I continued to investigate this South African deal, but I also wanted to see whether we had been taken for a ride. And what I discovered is what happened to us was happening all over the world, all the time, and that it is the basis of this industry. And I discovered though the work of this amazing guy called Joe Rover, who was with Transparency International at the time, that about 40% of all corruption in world trade happens within the arms trade. And when you think about it – the arms trade isn’t really that big in monetary terms when you compare it to, say, the pharmaceuticals trade – it means that an incredibly high percentage of these trades involve corruption. What had happened to South Africa is what happens everywhere. Big weapons makers and their governments work together on these deals that are often worth tens of billions of dollars; and they all know, all the participants, that corruption is built into every single one of these deals. It’s not that there is the occasional rotten apple – you know, someone in one of these companies who wants to get something around the back for himself. The corruption in the arms trade is built into the very structure, the very DNA of the industry. It’s built into the economics, into the pricing, and our politicians assist our companies to do this for a variety of reasons, fully aware that the industry is like this.
At the same time that we decided to spend this $10 billion on weapons that we didn’t need, our then president Thabo Mbeki was claiming we didn’t have enough money to buy anti-retroviral medication for the 6 million South Africans living with HIV or Aids. A study by Harvard University said that over that 5-year period after this policy decision at least 365,000 South Africans died avoidable deaths because we decided to spend the money on arms rather than medicine. Over 30 thousand babies a year were born HIV positive because we chose weapons over medicine. This notion that corruption is a victimless crime is nonsense. People die as a consequence of corruption, and I saw that first hand in South Africa.
The deal happened so soon after the advent of our democracy in South Africa, that it completely polluted our politics for the future. We had four extraordinary years with Mandela, where the national interest was put before everything, and then as Mandela is leaving office, almost immediately it became about party interest, it became about corruption, it became about individual political power, and it became about personal gain.
Even more recently, South Africa’s current president Jacob Zuma faced 783 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering in relation to the deal, but the charges were dropped a few weeks before he was elected president. And then, the acting prosecutor who dropped those charges was made an acting high court judge a few weeks after. And this is in spite of the fact that his financial adviser was actually found guilty of corrupting him and sentenced to 15 years. But even then, as soon as Zuma became president, he had him released from prison after just over a year. These days, South Africa and the ANC are ridden with corruption from top to bottom. The government in general is rife with corruption, and that all started thanks to the arms deal.
There are real consequences to these deals, and this industry and the devastating impact that it has has obsessed me since then because I’ve seen this impact. Every weapons-making country in the world is involved in this. But some are even worse than others. The United States is by far the largest weapons maker in the world but because of the scale of its defence needs, they don’t need to corrupt in the same way European and British companies do. The Europeans and the British need to corrupt in order to compete with the Americans, and the British are among the worst of these corrupters.
What I experienced with BAE Systems in South Africa the company, in cahoots with the British government, was doing all over the world.
Now I understand why companies want to work in cahoots with governments, because their motive is to make more money and profit, right? But it is hard to understand why a government is is supporting these companies on such terms – and actually quite possibly doing illegal things in the process. What is the benefit for the government? Is it merely that these companies provide jobs in the domestic industry, or is it more complicated?
The reason that the government is so supportive of their defence companies is that first of all, outside the US, most of these companies were originally state owned. BAE was privatised by Margaret Thatcher, and in fact, very soon after privatisation it was on the brink of collapse. That’s because, almost without exception, these companies are incredibly badly run due to being so reliant on state handouts. BAE only survived because of the biggest arms deal in history between Britain and Saudi Arabia – a deal worth about £43 billion. Of this, £6 billion were what are called ‘commissions’. ‘Commissions’ are bribes, so we’re talking £6 billion worth of bribes.
The key Saudi on the deal was the son of the defence minister, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He had over a billion pounds paid into his Washington D.C. accounts held in Riksbank. Some of that money found its way into his wife’s accounts (and also inadvertently into the accounts of two of the 9/11 hijackers). But in case over a billion pounds wasn’t enough for him, he was also given a gift by BAE of an airbus for his personal and private use, painted in the colours of his favourite American football team the Dallas Cowboys. To top that off, at least until 2007 – which is the only time we have been able to get documented proof of this – the British taxpayer was paying for the running and maintenance of Prince Bandar’s ‘present’.
So why did they do it? There are a number of reasons. First of all, these companies are very important to the state because they play a role in defence, in national security, so there is a close relationship anyway. Secondly, they tend, in a country like the United Kingdom, to be a very big part of what has become a very small manufacturing sector. So, they’re very economically important. Third of all, as you say, they do produce jobs, not nearly in the numbers they claim but they do produce jobs and they do produce foreign earnings. But the fact that those jobs and those earnings are massively subsidised is never discussed. In addition to which it is always attractive for a politician to be able to say, “I am bringing jobs to my country”, and “I am protecting my country”. They almost see it as part of the process of protecting and defending the country. The irony of that is that it is actually undermining national security.
But there are other reasons. The crucial thing about the weapons business is that everything that takes place in these transactions takes place behind the veil of national security and imposed secrecy. The politicians involved, the executives involved, the government officials involved, the military leaders involved, the intelligence agents involved, the intermediaries or dealers or agents involved, they all know that the chances of anything they do being found out are miniscule. So they’ll do things in this business that they would not do in any other sector of the economy and one of the consequences of that is that links between weapons makers and political parties and individual politicians is incredibly close. Incredibly close.
The reality is, political parties from all over the world, the UK included, get a lot of money from arms companies. And so do individual politicians. In the al-Yamamah case in Saudi Arabia, Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark Thatcher, was paid £12 million on the deal that his mother oversaw – and for what? For carrying his mother’s handbag on flights to Riyadh? For helping the arms dealers get in touch with his mother when nobody knew where she was? There are so many different levels when it comes to any government’s close relationship with arms companies.
I want to talk more about the specifics of the industry. It’s so murky, and so ridden with corruption and bribes and everything else you’ve talked about. So my first reaction is that if you know about it, and it is known about publicly, does that mean there is total impunity? Are laws being broken? Is it wrong to take a commission? And if so, and if £6 billion of bribes have been involved in the al-Yamamah case, why is no one in prison? Could you talk a little about the impunity that exists?
It’s important to understand that all those involved in the industry seem to operate with almost complete legal impunity – they seem to operate in a parallel legal universe to the rest of us. Why do I say that? Let me give you one overall example. When we wrote the book “The Shadow World” which came out in late 2011, we recorded that there were 502 violations of UN arms embargoes, that means companies and individuals or governments were selling weapons to places that the UN had placed arms embargoes on. They were violating international law. Yet of the 502 recorded violations, only two have resulted in any action whatsoever. Even then only one resulted in a prosecution, and a ridiculously small fine.
There are laws, there are national laws, there are national regulations around arms exports, there are multilateral regulations around arms exports, for example, the EU common position on arms exports, and there is now an international Arms Trade Treaty passed by the United Nations. None of these have any meaningful enforceability. The reality is, the government decides whether to obey the laws or not. And the extraordinary thing is that in the UK, the UK weapons exporting industry, the weapons producing companies and the UK government, are all breaking British law and violating multilateral international agreements virtually every day, and absolutely nothing happens about it.
To give you the most obvious example, from early 2017, in fact from earlier than that, from March 2015, the UK has been supplying Saudi Arabia with £3.3 billion worth of weaponry. This has been used primarily by the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict in Yemen. UN reports indicate that about one-third of those targeted are civilians. So not ‘collateral damage’ but people and infrastructure actively targeted by the coalition, which, by the way, is being advised by British and American advisers. They are targeting schools, hospitals, homes, places of worship, and economic infrastructure. This violates international humanitarian law, they’re committing war crimes, they violate British law, they violate the EU common position on arms exports, but not for one moment since March 2015, since the conflict in Yemen, have British arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other coalition partners been so much as paused. And this includes over £1 billion pounds worth of bombs and missiles, the very bombs and missiles that are identified at sites of massive atrocities in which innocent civilians have died.
And that’s just one side of it, the constant undermining of national and international law. On the other side, when this massive corruption takes place, nothing happens to the perpetrators. So, let me explain how that works. In the case of the al-Yamamah deal in Saudi Arabia, possibly the most corrupt commercial transaction in history, the Serious Fraud Office undertook an investigation at the behest of the Guardian newspaper, which had done a whole series of investigative stories on what they thought initially was just a slush fund for the Saudi royal family. However, the Serious Fraud Office discovered that it was in actuality £6 billion worth of bribes. They investigated the matter for over five years and were ready to bring charges against BAE and its senior executives. However, Tony Blair personally stepped in and stopped the investigation. He first tried to stop it on the basis that there was insufficient evidence – the SFO refused to accept that. He then said that it had to stop on national security grounds because the Saudis had threatened that if this investigation continued there would be blood on the streets of London. According to our high court judge, a member of the Saudi royal family, probably Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had effectively threatened the people of the United Kingdom.
That’s the reality. Our own Prime Minister is prepared to bow down to the Saudi royal family to undermine the British system of justice in order to protect BAE systems and the relationship with Saudi Arabia. But the ultimate irony of that is that this arms trade which is supposedly helping us politically, helping us economically, and making us safer, is providing all of this weaponry, all of these means to destruction, to a regime that is one of the biggest funders and sponsors of the very extremists that have coordinated and orchestrated terrorist attacks on British soil.
I suppose one could describe the British arms trade as a circle of insanity, and the reason the insanity continues is because people have such invested interests. They generate personal power from this system, be it military leaders, political leaders, or corporate executives. All sorts of people are generating huge amounts of money for their companies, for their political parties, and for themselves personally.
It’s interesting that you say that. It sounds like from what you’re saying that there has been very little difference between the Labour and Conservative parties in terms of their support for this industry. Yet now in British politics we have Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party. He’s the first leader of any political party, that I know of, that has said that he will immediately stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia. If we got Corbyn in tomorrow, how difficult would he find it to actually do that – what opposition would he face?
I’m not British, I’m from South Africa. I hear speak of this idea of the British establishment. My understanding of the establishment is exactly the people who, if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, wanting to profoundly change our relationship with Saudi Arabia, wanting to profoundly change the way we export weapons, who we export to and what we give to them and the basis of which we do it, the entirety of the British establishment would join forces to try and stop him. And that would include a number of Members of Parliament from his own Labour party. So deep are the vested interests in this industry, so obsessed, so one-dimensional is our understanding of foreign and national security policy that the vast majority of people in positions of power in this country, and that includes in the media, have bought this whole notion that by selling massive amounts of weaponry to pretty much everyone in the world, involving massive corruption, we are somehow making ourselves safer. That these people are our allies.
The most wonderful thing about the early 2017 election for me was when, for the first time, one of the candidates of a leading party stood up after the recent terror attacks, and said “to understand why these terrible things have happened we have to understand our role in them”. We need to understand the root causes of these atrocious events. We need to understand our own culpability in selling weapons to a regime that is itself financing some of these activities and even going so far as to say that some of the people involved in the incidences in the United Kingdom have links to British intelligence, and that British intelligence and the military and the weapons industry, were actually supporting some of the very militias that this person had belonged to. So for the first time somebody is saying “if we don’t want to be attacked, we’ve got to stop actually watering what is leading to these attacks” and I think it could become a moment in which the debate around foreign policy in the United Kingdom and around British arms export and weapon making changes significantly and fundamentally. And if that is the case it will have a massive impact on British history.
Carrying on from that, it’s interesting that you called your book and film ‘The Shadow World’ because it sounds like the reason they get away with what they have done up until now is that there hasn’t been anyone like Corbyn, and the media often doesn’t do their job. A case in point is with the recent crisis in Venezuela, when everyone asked Corbyn to denounce the Venezuelan regime. It subsequently came out a few days later that the UK Conservative government was actually physically selling weapons to this regime. Could you talk a little about how this whole world is off the books?
The reason we describe this whole world as a ‘shadow world’ is because the media as a whole doesn’t cover it. Certainly the mainstream media doesn’t. You know, they occasionally do when it gets big enough. They’ll cover the corruption, and usually only after the Guardian does and then all the others eventually follow suit. But the actual root causes, the actual systemic functioning of this industry and everyone who is involved in it never gets addressed. So, you have a situation where the weapons industry, the military, politicians in government, and the intelligence services can pretty much do what they want because there is virtually no scrutiny, there is virtually no accountability. The hypocrisy of this and the danger of it is brought out by the situation in Venezuela.
When Venezuelan President Maduro’s administration was under enormous pressure from internal protests and international pressure, British politicians, especially in the Conservative party, started asking why the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had not criticised the Maduro administration. Corbyn didn’t give them the answer that they wanted, which was to condemn the Maduro administration out of hand. Instead he gave a very even-handed response. This led to renewed outrage but the ultimate irony is that it was then revealed that throughout both the Chavez and Maduro regimes the British state, largely under the Conservative Party, had been selling the Venezuelan government weapons, weapon systems and all sorts of equipment, including equipment that could be used for oppression and the suppression of the Venezuelan people. This really characterises the deep hypocrisy of British arms exports, because on the one hand Britain claims to stand on the international stage for a notion of democracy given that we have the mother of all parliaments which is there, supposedly, for the rule of law, for no corruption, for transparency and accountability, for not supporting dictatorships, authoritarianism etc. etc. Yet, if we look at the regimes that the British government has weaponised, the vast majority of them are non-democratic, deeply corrupt, and are in cahoots with various extremist movements.
In the general sense, what percentage of the arms trade is comprised of deals like the South Africa deal, the Tanzania deal. Deals that basically involve government officials taking bribes from private companies to acquire weaponry they don’t need and depriving their own citizens of billions of dollars? Is that a large proportion of deals, and is that the reason bribes are paid? Because you have this whole industry, it seems, that rests on the fact that it doesn’t really need to be there and we have to pay people to buy the stuff that we are trying to get rid of anyway. Could you talk a little bit about that contradiction?
I mean, I don’t argue that there should be no weapons produced in the world. There are situations in which weaponry is required. But what we have in the world today is a completely out-of-control weapons industry and arms trade. Why do I say that? Because the vast majority of arms deals that are done are government to government arms deals, they are deals between the British and South African government, the British and Tanzanian government, the British and American government, in a huge number of cases, and I can’t put an exact percentage on it, but in a huge number of cases it is for weaponry that is not required. Sometimes it is completely inappropriate for the purpose for which it is procured, at enormous cost, and often it is simply for the bribes. Clare Short, former cabinet minister, actually once said “you know sometimes I look at this industry and wonder why we don’t just forget about the weapons and just pay the bribes”, and one really feels that this is the nature of the industry.
There is a great example in the world at the moment. The United States is producing a jet fighter called the F35, and it will be the most expensive weapons project in history. It is going to cost the American taxpayers one-and-a-half trillion dollars. An aerospace design engineer who worked in the Pentagon has described the it as the worst plane ever produced. He said the best thing about the F35 is that the only people who are going to be endangered by it are its test pilots. The reality is 25 other countries, including the United Kingdom, are buying the F35. The F35 is going to make nobody safer. What it is going to do is to divert much needed resources, so in fighting climate change, in improving education, in improving health care, in getting housing for the majority of Britons who can’t afford it. We are finding a higher use of food banks today than at any time than just after the Second World War, in the fifth richest country in the world. I would say that that is more important than a jet that has so many techno gizmos on it that it can barely fly.
Let’s even set that aside for a moment, and let’s say to ourselves: in terms of the real security challenges that face us, do we need to do spend tens-of-billions of pounds on this ridiculous jet? Of course not. So even if it stayed within the defence budget it could be used on far more appropriate things and those would include, by the way, what I believe is one of the greatest national security threats, climate change. So by the nature of the trade, by the fact that it is largely a trade that is generated by political ideology rather than by real need we are making ourselves less democratic because it all happens in secret, far more corrupt because it accounts for 40% of the corruption in the world, and most ironic of all, we are making ourselves less safe while spending more and more money on defence.
One of the interesting contradictions on the left in the UK, and I assume it is the same around the Western world, is that the unions, the backers of Corbyn, especially Unite, they’ve come out in favour of the arms industry and especially the renewal of Trident, the submarines for which are being built in Barrow. Could you talk a little bit about that and about that being quite short-sighted because firstly, Corbyn has said that he would replace those jobs with socially useful jobs, and a little bit about the Lucas Plan, which would transform the arms industry into socially useful production instead.
In much of the world, in the United Kingdom, in Scandinavia, trade unions tend to be supportive of their country’s arms industry. Why? Because a large number of their members are employed in the industry. There are a whole lot of levels at which this is both terrible politics and awful economics.
First of all, the defence sector is an absolutely terrible way to grow an economy or to create jobs. Studies that have been done, predominantly in the United States, but they will apply to most of the advanced industrial world, show us that for the amount the state subsidise every job in the defence sector you could create between three and seven equivalent jobs in farm or productive manufacturing sectors. So, first of all, we could create far better jobs, far more of them, and most important of all, we could make things that are far more useful to society at large. So, the one obvious thing, is the enormous number of Britain’s engineers that go into the arms industry. The other area where the very same expertise is required is the renewable energy sector. The difficulty is that for a politician to stand up and say we are going to transfer those jobs and create a far bigger renewable energy sector, high level education sector etc. etc. requires a period of transition.
In essence, it is easier for trade unionists and politicians to simply accept the status quo, but what would be far better for the country would actually be for the government to invest in the costs of that transferal of skills. Where even older people, highly experienced people, could be transitioned – probably over a two to three-year period as the Lucas Plan once suggested – into jobs in new and emerging sectors. One of the things that we are very keen to do with the film of ‘Shadow World’ is to start engaging with the trade union movement. Not just at the top level but also at the level of shop stewards to explain to them some of the consequences of the defence business that many of their members are involved in, and to, together with them, to start looking at the nuts and bolts of what transition would look like. I think that if one looks also at the impact that we could make on environmental issues, as well as actually creating a more controlled, smaller, far better regulated, far less political weapons sector, the social good of such a transfer of technology from military jobs into civilian jobs would be overwhelming for the United Kingdom.
Just to talk a little about the United Kingdom more specifically, why it has risen to this position? How did BAE, which is the largest defence contractor in Europe (and third in the world), plus the UK, which is one of the top exporters – how did the UK become this behemoth weapons-making hub
There are a number of reasons why the UK has become such a hub for weapons-making and for the arms trade. The first is obviously the political alliance with the United States of America. The US produces on any given year today about one-third of all the weapons that are produced in the world, so it dominates the sector, but it also dominates the world politically. Britain, as the United States’ closest ally, has always been a part of that industry, in cahoots with the US. The US went through a manufacturing leap during the Second World War that was driven by its defence sector and Britain benefited from that as well. Come the post-war period, the shift in manufacturing in a heavy industry like weapons, really moved from Britain to the United States. The British arms industry has actually contracted, when one thinks of its post-world war two hires, while the United States industry has grown. But nevertheless, we have had this core involvement because we were seen as the United States’ partner on the other side of the pond. That has been immense for us.
The second reason is that the state has focused so heavily on the defence sector, so this has been a conscious decision, and it is a conscious decision about where state subsidies and resources go because none of these companies would stay afloat without state subsidy. None of them would survive in what the Conservatives would like to think is a free market. They would actually die. So, state subsidy, state handouts, are absolutely crucial. The third reason I think is a consequence of Britain’s history as an empire. The British government continued to focus on the arms industry and on the arms trade as a tool of foreign policy and as a way for the UK to think that it is far more significant in world affairs than it actually is.
One of the questions we’re looking at is how the behaviour of the government changed after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came into power in 2010. It would be quite interesting to hear your thoughts about the differences, if any, between the Blair-Brown years and Tory governments on either side of them.
The one thing that has unfortunately been fairly consistent in my opinion is that British governments, certainly since Thatcher but you could probably argue from long before Thatcher as well, have been unstinting in their support for the British arms industry. I think the one fundamental difference was that Thatcher, because of her neoliberal ideology, saw this industry as being the driver of privatisation. So, the amalgamation of a number of smaller British weapons makers into what was then BAE Systems was part of the ideological drive of privatisation, and therefore it was going to succeed whatever the cost to government. So the al-Yamamah deal, the reason that Thatcher was happy in a meeting with Prince Bandar, to effectively say ‘ok’ to whatever the Saudis wanted in terms of bribery and corruption, was because she knew that she had to secure this deal in order for BAE to survive as a private entity, and she was exactly right. It would have gone under without it. So, it was ideologically driven.
I think that when Tony Blair came to office, and let’s not forget that Margaret Thatcher was once asked what she believes her greatest achievement was and she responded, ‘Tony Blair’, so we are not talking about a radical politician here. I think what is very important to understand about Tony Blair is that Tony Blair’s leadership was the moment at which Britain’s Labour Party accepted the neo-liberal ideological consensus and all of its consequences. A part of that was unstinting support for the British arms industry, and it is why Tony Blair and his first Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, fell out so badly because Cook, when in office, posited the idea of a foreign policy that ran straight into and collided with Blair’s desire to see Britain sell weapons all over the world. Why did he do it? One, it was to show the City of London how firmly he was behind British industry. Two, I believe as Clare Short has said, he “enjoyed the drama” of the military and defence and warfare. He loved a good war, and as Clare Short has said, “in cabinet, when any arms deals came to cabinet, regardless of what the reservations where, be they developmental, human rights or any other, Tony Blair would always push them through, in fact”, she said, “he never saw an arms deal that he didn’t like”. I think a part of that was ideological, and a part of it was also the patronage involved.
It meant that he would get to play at the same table as the captains of industry. He could work hand in glove with them, to sell British products, and he has become an incredibly wealthy man as a consequence of that. For instance, post-invasion of Iraq, which he was obviously responsible for and about which he lied to his cabinet, to the British parliament and to the British people, he has been paid £5 million a year by JP Morgan. JP Morgan happens to be the bank that won the contract to stabilise the Iraqi national bank after the invasion of Iraq which made them billions of dollars. So why are they paying Tony Blair £5 million a year? Second, he earns a similar amount of money every year from a South Korean oil services company that nobody has ever heard of, that won the contracts to repair the oil infrastructure in British controlled Basra after the invasion of Iraq. In addition to which he and Sir Rob Evans, chairman of BAE at the time of the al-Yamamah scandal and its £6 billion of bribes, chairman of BAE at the time of the corruption in South Africa, Tanzania, the Czech Republic, Austria etc. etc. etc., with whom Tony Blair became very close while in office. Both of them, for a period of time, advised the brutal authoritarian government of Kazakhstan. So, for Tony Blair it was his entrée into the world of multi-millions from which he would benefit personally.
What then happened under the collision government? David Cameron was a wannabe Tony Blair. His attitude to the arms industry was exactly the same to the extent that at the time of the Arab Spring, when Tahrir Square exploded in protest in Egypt, David Cameron was touring the region with the executives of British weapon makers including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce trying to sell weapons to the very regimes that people were protesting against. When Tahrir Square happened, he made a statement while in the region about how supportive the British government was of what the protesters in Tahrir Square were doing, failing to mention that the only reason the Mubarak regime had remained in government and had been so brutal in its oppression of its own people was because of British and American weapons sold to it with massive amounts of corruption. I suppose it was therefore not surprising that immediately after the Arab Spring, once governments appeared in these nations, David Cameron was back on the road with the same executives from British weapons makers trying to sell British weapons to them to start the same cycle all over again.
The Liberal Democrats in office consciously and actively aided and abetted the process. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who while an opposition member of parliament, is quoted in my book as being an arch critic of BAE, of saying that the way this company operates is a disgrace to Britain, then became their sales person in chief along with David Cameron. In addition to which we also discovered that Vince Cable, while in office, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, approved the sale of gun boats from Norway through a post-box company in the United Kingdom to a known Nigerian warlord who at the time when the boats were exported from Britain to Nigeria, was threatening to restart the civil war in the Niger Delta if his man Goodluck Jonathan didn’t win the impending Nigerian election. So, the Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives, continued business as usual when it came to the UK arms industry and have a lot to answer for as a consequence. I suppose that again puts into perspective how unique and different Jeremy Corbyn is in the British political firmament in his attitudes to the British weapons-making industry.
Ok, so coming towards the end, I wanted to ask a more general question: do you think it is inevitable that the industry is run like it is? If you make a few small changes, ban ‘commissions’ and put people in prison if they receive them, could you have an arms industry that wasn’t so immoral?
We have historically seen other problematic industries and we still do today besides the arms industry. The extraordinary thing is that many of those industries over time, and I’m thinking here most obviously of the tobacco industry, have through regulation and through sanction been brought into line because there is the political will to regulate them. In the case of the weapons industry, there are some very simple things that could be done that would profoundly and fundamentally change the nature of the global arms trade.
Let me give you a couple of examples. If it was compulsory for companies and governments to make public the names of every intermediary they used, every agent, every arms dealer etc. etc., to make public their name, what they are being paid and what they are doing for that money because it is through the intermediaries that many of the bribes have been paid historically. The result would be that immediately you remove the most corrupt and criminal dimensions of arms trades and you put them into the public domain. It makes it a lot more difficult to do. But that would be to the disadvantage of the companies, politicians, political parties, and the intermediaries themselves. We could do that.
The second thing we could do is this. The World Trade Organisation, which is a member-based organisation, resolved something called ‘economic offsets’ which are the strange economic notions that if a country buys $100 of a company’s product that company will then invest in the local economy so that $120 or £150 will be generated in that economy, resulting in the purchase of weapons being in effect a positive for the economy. These economic offsets have so much economic sophistry, they simply don’t work. There is a significant literature that shows they are nonsense. The member states of the World Trade Organisation led by the United States, the United Kingdom and others decided in their wisdom that the only sector that should be excluded from a ban on economic offsets being considered in public procurement decisions is the defence sector. By simply ensuring that offsets would also be covered by these WTO provisions, we would then remove another way in which bribes are paid on arms deals.
Thirdly, is if we simply enforced and implemented the existing laws. We wouldn’t even need to make new laws and regulations. We have really good agreements. We have really good laws, we simply bypass them. But the unfortunate reality is that for any of these things to happen requires political will, and that is what is lacking so profoundly in the global arms trade. It would involve the very politicians who are benefiting so well, both politically and economically from this, changing the nature of a global arms trade that best suits their own interests.
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.