The global arms trade is said to be the most corrupt business sector on the planet, responsible for almost 40 per cent of all dodgy dealings. The estimated statistics show a staggering imbalance in the link between the industry’s value and amount of associated corruption. Consider this: all global trade is valued at a colossal $16.2 trillion; the arms trade (not to be confused with any one nation’s military expenditure), despite its exponential growth, accounts for a comparatively modest $100 billion, and yet, the latter is responsible for nearly half of all known corruption.
Consider also that most arms sales go from West to East. Britain ranks amongst the top ten exporters of arms in the world; its customers include regimes with some of the worst human rights records. Is this because of corruption, and does it automatically lead to corruption within the British Establishment?
Buying and selling arms are as lucrative as they are secretive. Unearthing corruption isn’t a simple case of following the breadcrumbs. We can assume that the industry is more insidious than any other sector, and that the merchants of death and destruction are operating under a culture of silence. Such a culture will lack transparency by default, and be sheltered by individuals with vested interests in expanding the military-industrial complex.
Concerns about the industry appear to be justified and ought to raise further questions over government policies as well as legal judgements that, one way or another, seem to advance the interests of the arms industry. That certainly looks to be the case in the current legal battle involving campaigners facing prosecution for protesting against the largest arms fair in the world.
Last month, a British court sentenced five of the protesters arrested last summer for demonstrating near the arms expo in London’s ExCel exhibition centre, the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI). The judges rejected the defendants’ claim that they were exercising their right to freedom of speech and assembly before finding them guilty of “Obstruction of a Highway”.
Nothing is as it looks like when it comes to the arms industry. The case against the 43 activists, which is ongoing, is part of a long running battle between rights groups and sections of the British establishment which, it seems, would prefer arms’ sales to continue unopposed.
The legal saga began in April 2016 when judges in a British Magistrate’s Court acquitted campaigners who chained themselves outside the ExCel centre during the 2015 arms fair. They had been charged by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) with blocking a public highway.
The court heard evidence from human rights groups and arms trade experts explaining the nature and possible end destinations of the weapons on sale at the fair. The activists argued successfully that their actions were justified since they were seeking to prevent greater crimes such as genocide and torture. When acquitting them, one district judge said that there had been “clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence from the expert witnesses of wrongdoing at DSEI and compelling evidence that it took place in 2015.” The verdict was seen as an indictment of British arms sales to repressive regimes in the Middle East.
Judges also threw out two attempts by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to appeal against the verdict by denouncing the application as “dishonest”, “frivolous” and “misconceived”. The CPS finally applied directly to the High Court, seeking a judicial review of the activists’ acquittal. The case was reopened in March 2017 as the ruling was seen as having broader significance.
A year later and two months prior to the 2017 ExCel arms fair, the High Court quashed the acquittal of the protestors, arguing that the judge at the Magistrates’ Court “misdirected himself in law”. The preventing crime defence was judged not to have been relevant because, according to the High Court, there was no evidence that the commission of a crime was “imminent and immediate”.
Protestors put on trial for demonstrating against the 2017 fair told MEMO that they had been unaware of the High Court decision to overrule the previous judgement just months prior to the event. As far as they were concerned, they insisted, the protest against the arms trade had been backed by a British court judgement.
Naturally, the legal volleyball played here raises serious questions over a verdict that has given a green light to this corrupt industry to carry on with business as usual. I asked one of the leading experts on the global arms industry, Andrew Feinstein, to shed light on its shadowy world. The former South African politician, now an international expert who has devoted most of his professional life to shedding light on the impact of the arms industry, explained that there were macro- and micro-level reasons for the High Court decision overruling the lower court.
The British defence industry, he explained, is part of a much broader arrangement between the state – in its broadest definition – and the defence industry. The government regards the defence and security sector as a major strategic asset for its foreign policy. Continuing with the “macro” explanation, Feinstein said that with Brexit ongoing, the arms sector is essential for growth and employment in Britain’s economy. The judgement, according to him, is an attempt by the British establishment to remove any barrier to the arms industry playing an “exalted role in the economy”.
He pointed out that the Conservative government had promised to remove any such barriers, citing the party’s manifesto pledge to get rid of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). Feinstein, who says that former US President Dwight D Eisenhower’s 1961 warning – “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – has gone unheeded. He believes that the Tory attack on the SFO was the government basically saying, “We don’t give a s**t about international corruption and international law. If that is what it takes for the arms industry to be successful in the world than so be it.” The Conservative Party, he affirmed, wishes to remove all inhibitions and barriers for the arms industry.
On a micro-level, Feinstein suggested that the High Court decision was an attempt to close down space for protest and dissent in Britain. If the Magistrates’ Court judgement had stood, he claimed, it would have opened the floodgates to massive protests on a whole range of issues, including the arms trade.
“With the state of the country socially politically and economically, the government is terrified,” he explained. That being the case, he added, the CPS spent an enormous amount of energy to make sure that the lower court’s judgement was overturned because it would have set a precedent for direct action and protest across the country.
As the author of Shadow World: Inside the global arms trade, Feinstein said that he has seen how the British arms industry operates; in his view, it is one of the most corrupt in the world. He cited the infamous Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia as the most corrupt of all. The 1985 deal is alleged to have been obtained thanks to vast sums of money being paid in bribes, and the maintenance of a multi-million pound “slush fund” used to buy luxury holidays and pay for shopping sprees. When the SFO started to investigate what came to be regarded as Britain’s largest ever export agreement, it was apparently ready with incontrovertible evidence to seek arrest warrants for the chairman and chief executive of BAE Systems.
What happened next was evidence of the level of corruption within the arms industry. According to Feinstein, the Saudi Arabian government intervened directly with Downing Street and warned the then Prime Minister Tony Blair that if the investigation was not stopped then future arms deals with Britain would be terminated. Blair duly obliged and closed down the investigation, citing Britain’s national interests as the reason. His decision to halt the SFO inquiry was condemned in 2008 by British courts, which called for an inquiry into allegations that BAE had made secret payments to Saudi officials in order to secure a series of massive contracts.
The global arms trade, Feinstein pointed out, operates mainly in the shadows; hence the title of his book. Corruption, it seems, is at the heart of the industry to such an extent that it threatens to undermine democratic institutions, as Eisenhower predicted. Furthermore, it seeks to diminish the rights of citizens to protest freely against a trade that causes death, destruction and mayhem across the globe. By ceding legal ground to the arms industry, I for one cannot help but feel that Britain has lost some of its sanity.