Let’s be honest about arms companies

Another year, another series of corruption allegations. For the ‘British defence giant’ BAE Systems there must be a sense of déjà vu. Only three years ago did the venal Mr. Blair close down the SFO investigation into allegations of massive corruption by BAE in the now infamous Al Yamamah deal of the 1980s. (For those of you who have forgotten the details, the gist was that BAE paid Saudi royalty hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes. BAE made over $40bn from Al Yamamah, and the UK is paid in oil to this day.) The corruption investigation ran for a long time, but in the end the plug was pulled at the behest of Saudi pressure, and sold to the British public on grounds of ‘national security’ and job losses. If that had been a single blemish on an otherwise spotless ethical record it would be bad enough. But of course, the arms trade is not known for its subtlety – unless you count its anodyne, corporate façade – and there is never smoke without fire.

Now it is 2009 and BAE are once again under the spotlight. The latest investigations are into contracts won from countries including Tanzania, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Romania. Former South African MP Andrew Feinstein, the man who oversaw the 1999 deal between BAE and his government, has spoken at Warwick before about the corruption of officials, the reneging on industrial offset agreements, and atrophy of social spending that is synonymous with a BAE arms deal; the country’s woefully inadequate AIDS programme has its roots in the diversion of already modest funds into superfluous defence purchasing.

At the time of going to print this week the whispers of a deal between the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and BAE had not yet been confirmed in public statements by either of the concerned parties. The plea bargain being sought by the SFO would involve BAE admitting guilt over charges of corruption and coughing up a ten-figure sum in reparations. This is, needless to say, unlikely to happen, but even an admission of guilt would be a monumental step forward for justice.

Here at Warwick we have a long tradition of allowing the arms dealers into our careers events. They rub shoulders with investment bankers, and all the other corporate villains of our time. Not to go unheard, and ever subversive in our desire for corporate transparency and accountability, many Warwick students have nurtured an equally long tradition of leafleting, flash mobbing careers fairs, and kicking up a fuss whenever the arms trade comes to campus. Weapons Out of Warwick (under the aegis of People and Planet) will be active again this academic year, and into the foreseeable future, until the arms trade is exposed for what it is: a spurious industry that is sustained by the military-industrial complex of our politicians; that leeches off the tax-payer; that hinders growth in crucial sectors such as renewable technology, and fuels war and the deaths of countless millions. For how can an industry whose profit growth is predicated on increased conflict possibly not view war zones as ‘emerging markets’?

But the morality can even be left aside, and the debate left to hinge solely on pragmatic, economic, and security concerns. It is true that BAE, QinetiQ, Thales, Rolls Royce, and other so-called ‘British’ defence companies do bring jobs into this country. BAE has around 32,000 UK employees for instance. As such you might argue they deserve to be at our careers events. Perhaps; to deny the many students this year who will be looking for a career after Warwick raises some tricky questions about ethical authoritarianism, and people’s right to choose their employer. But the nature of those 32,000 jobs is hardly non-transferable, and there are more worthwhile sectors towards which the emphasis and incentives should be directed; the government currently subsidises the UK arms industry to the tune of £900 million per year. Money on a scale not even approaching this level could have been invested in renewable technology. Vestas Blades needn’t have gone under worker occupation.

My principle annoyance, notwithstanding the innocent people who die as a direct or indirect result of the gun-runners, is the PR in which they wrap themselves. There is nothing so disingenuous and misleading as the unadulterated corporate bullshit of their PR. The scare quotes for ‘British defence giant’ are truly necessary: BAE for example are neither really British (the majority of their employees are not in the UK, likewise their shareholders; likewise their buyers – who are predominately American) or in the business of ‘defence’. Selling to both Iran and Iraq in the 1980-88 war has resulted in ‘British’ guns being used against our own troops in Iraq today. Similar cases abound.

As for the SFO investigation, the first thing that an unequivocal admission of guilt will hopefully do is put into people’s minds the reality of these companies, warts and all, rather than the image of the patriotic economic champion that they most definitely are not.

See _www.caat.org.uk_ for further information on the arms trade.


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