Dirty deals, bribes - welcome to the world of the arms trade

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Public opposition to the arms trade has risen sharply in Britain, largely in response to a never-ending stream of scandals surrounding BAE Systems.

The scandals exposed in recent weeks are the latest in a saga that has run for several years. Britain is the world's second biggest arms exporter and BAE is its largest arms company. BAE has always been unpopular, but criticism reached boiling point at the end of 2006.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) was investigating allegations that BAE engaged in multimillion pound corruption, bribing Saudi princes with luxury cars, hotel rooms 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 it was close to a breakthrough. BAE's bosses saw their privileges and profits under threat.

That all changed on 14 December, when Attorney General Peter Goldsmith announced the investigation had been dropped. Tony Blair defended the decision, saying the inquiry would harm British-Saudi relations. He did not mention the Saudi regime's record of torture, sexism and persecution of religious minorities, or refer to the power BAE has over the British government.

BAE is not simply one more unethical multinational. Some would say it is in the premier league of powerful businesses in Britain. But this is not really true. BAE is the premier league.

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook wrote that BAE's bosses "appeared to have the key to the garden door at Number 10". He never saw Blair take any decision to BAE's disadvantage. Although only 0.2 percent of British jobs depend on arms exports, the arms industry is subsidised with more than £850 million a year in taxpayers' money. Many consider this goes to the core of the real motivation for curtailing the corruption inquiry.

Through public practices and private manoeuverings arms companies have crept ever further into the heart of government. The Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) is an arms marketing agency run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It gives private arms traders unparalleled access to ministers.

It is even reported that DESO boss Alan Garwood will return to his old company BAE after leaving DESO this year - a blatant example of the revolving door that also allows former ministers 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 pass. This incestuous relationship has made it normal to put arms dealers' wishes ahead of any other interests.

With the suspension of the inquiry, the influence of arms companies has been put on display and BAE's bosses have been exposed to the greatest threat of all: public opposition.

Since the inquiry was dropped, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has been flooded with messages of support. Over 130 NGOs have called on the government to re-open the inquiry. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has questioned the government's behaviour and launched an investigation into how the inquiry was dropped.

Over 100 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion (a sort of parliamentary petition) calling for the inquiry to be re-opened. In May, BAE's bosses faced public anger both inside and outside their AGM. Journalists continue to unearth fresh material that makes the need for an inquiry obvious.

One of the most exciting developments is the judicial review being sought jointly by CAAT and the Corner House, an anti-corruption NGO. They aim to see a court declare the decision to curtail the inquiry unlawful.

CAAT believes the arms trade is not a legitimate business that has been the subject of abuse, but an industry whose very purpose is to profit from death and poverty. It argues that people in Britain can have a huge impact on the world by ending Britain's role in the trade. The most effective way to do this is to break the relationship between arms companies and government.

CAAT is confident the campaign to reopen the BAE-Saudi corruption inquiry can make this hope a reality.


For more information, or to join the campaign, go to www.caat.org.uk or phone 020 7281 0297.