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Big Business, The British Government and The Lack of Morality


By Rosemary Ekosso


BAE says the following in its bit on corporate responsibility on its website:


We must fully understand and comply with laws and controls governing defence exports everywhere we operate, and ensure we meet the highest standards of conduct in our work.


I don’t want to sound prejudiced, but a company that sells weapons that are then used in wars in Africa and the Third World to facilitate the killing and maiming of countless human beings really shouldn’t say things like that in public.


When you sell things like tanks and fighter jets, what do you think they’ll be used for? Playing tennis? But then BAE is not the only weapons systems company in the phonebook. There are many others.


The reason BAE has been in the news of late, however, is not because it sells weapons systems to the likes of Ethiopia and Egypt. It is because of a corruption scandal.


The connection between big business, weapons sales and corruption scandals is no longer new. However, the ingredient that makes this a noteworthy story is that the British government, or its Prime Minister, is batting for the company being investigated.


Mr Tony Blair defended his decision to support the dropping of the investigation thus:

Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is vitally important for our country in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel and Palestine. That strategic interest comes first.


By this action, he has struck a blow for impunity, for what may a corporation not now do to safeguard national interest? You would think that with all the seriously bad things that big corporations are held responsible for, the one time such a corporation is caught doing what they all do so well, it would be punished. But I suppose it is better to support your economy by selling weapons and thus provide some evidence that the moral bankruptcy your enemies accuse you of is in fact true.


Mr Blair has resolutely placed the British government in the camp of corruption, in a move reminiscent of what the world-that-does-not-live-under-undemocratic-dictators is quite strident in decrying in the-world-that-does.


I wonder what Transparency International is going to say about this. I’ve just checked, and it says:

The SFO [this being the Serious Fraud Office, about which more later] stated that it had been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest. It is worrying that the Government should see a conflict between the two.


I looked on the Guardian website and some really annoying serial letter-writer says that BAE should be left alone because:


 1) life’s like that and 2) jobs would be lost. That lives are lost, as someone points out, when weapons are sold, is obviously of no interest to that letter-writer.


Here is the story: it all started sometime in the 1980s, when BAE secured an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, that bastion of democracy and respect for human’s rights. The deal is known as Al Yamamah, which is Arabic for dove, it would seem. But what’s in a name, eh? Mrs Thatcher signed it, and everyone beamed for the cameras and said that it was good. I have visions of her waving a contract at Heathrow upon her return and announcing: weapons deals in our time.


But that is just my imagination. Apparently, in 1992, the National Audit Office prepared a report on this deal, which was suppressed.
Noseweek says in this article, which you must buy to read, I’m afraid, that:


For 14 years, the UK government has suppressed a report by the National Audit Office into the Al Yamamah deals. Earlier this summer the auditor general refused even to hand it over to the Serious Fraud Office.


And adds:

Letters from the permanent secretary at Britain’s Ministry of Defence, Sir Kevin Tebbit, show that he prevented the ministry’s fraud squad from investigating the allegations against BAe; that he failed to tell his minister about the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office; and that he tipped off the chairman of BAe about the contents of a confidential letter the fraud office had sent him. When the US government told him that BAe had allegedly engaged in corrupt practice in the Czech Republic, Sir Kevin failed to inform the police.


Then in 2004, the Guardian reported allegations that BAE had won the deal using a slush fund. It then provided the results of its investigations to the SFO. Now, the Serious Fraud Office is supposed to investigate cased of fraud, and, one presumes, act as a deterrent to further fraud. The SFO investigated it until 14 December this year, when it announced that it was giving up the investigation because: It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest.


That sounds like a damned lame excuse, but it is elaborated upon elsewhere.


The Observer says:

Saudi Arabia threatened to stop sharing vital intelligence - particularly intercepted communications between al-Qaeda members active there - unless Britain suspended its investigation into a controversial arms deal, The Observer can reveal.


Senior Whitehall sources said the Saudis warned they would also kick out British military and intelligence personnel based in the country.

'They were threatening everything: intelligence, everything. The
US and the UK have got their bases in Saudi, that is their "in" to the Middle East,' said one source. 'Essentially, the line was that British lives could be lost if this relationship broke down. It would have been them freezing everybody out and speaking to nobody about anything

But I thought the so-called Civilised World did not give in to blackmail of that sort? Why are they not waxing indignant, jowls trembling, about how they will not give in to blackmail and betray the Christian ethic of the free world?


So what was the trick used to get the money to the Saudi princes? One approach was to inflate the price of the merchandise in the books, and to have corrupt Saudi princes sort of snip off the extra before the money was moved to public coffers. BAE also had this neat little slush fund, by which means they paid for extravagant gifts for the Saudi princes and their families, including, according to this BBC article, a Rolls Royce, expensive tableware and skiing holidays.


When one reads about the children of dictators and other unsavoury leaders spending oodles of money, reaping where they did not sow, and using the influence of their powerful parents to get rich, one does not usually think of the children of Western leaders.


Well, perhaps one should. The other stakeholders involved in the al Yamamah deal include, it would seem, Mark Thatcher, that guiding force for regime change in small and weak countries that have suddenly discovered oil.


Do you remember his wonderful plan for turning Equatorial Guinea into the plaything of the Bight of Benin Company? He denies it, but most people believe that he and his co-conspirators planned a mercenary-led invasion for Equatorial Guinea that turned, luckily for that country, run as it might be by (another) dictatorship, into the Bight of Pigs invasion.


A bight is a kind of bay, by the way. Refresh your memories here. This old story in the Guardian reports allegations that when his mother was signing the Al Yamamah deal, he pocketed twelve million pounds in commissions.


Still according to Noseweek, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO)  is a

…government agency founded 40 years ago to smooth out foreign deals for British arms companies. From its inception, this smoothing involved baksheesh. It was established as a channel for “financial aids and incentives” to corrupt officials in foreign governments.


I went to DESO’s website. Their vision is expressed as follows: “A DESO highly regarded by overseas Governments, exporters and MoD alike.”


I almost laughed! But the really hilarious thing about the Saudi deal is that it also involved the sale of Eurofighters. Now, in this article, Noseweek quotes a “senior Defence official as saying that the Eurofighter is “a dead duck ... expensive and obsolete”, and a former defence minister as saying that it was “essentially flawed and out of date”.


72 of those obsolete dead ducks were sold to Saudi Arabia, the magazine says.


How can they be so gullible, these Saudis who okayed the deal? Or is it that they took the bribes and did not care what their country was getting? What is it with governments that they all seem determined to do things in their countries’ worst interests?

What does all this tell us? That no one is above corruption?


We know that already. But we do not know it well enough, I think, to put the events that occur in our small, weak, badly managed countries into perspective. This is only one of the many deals that rich and powerful governments make in order to stay rich and powerful.


The difference, perhaps, lies in the fact that though Mr. Blair is not ready to sell his soul for money, he is doing so for his country. What do we sell our souls for?


For further reading, I recommend this paper by Lt. Col. Martin Rupiah of Zimbabwe. It will get you thinking.


There is also Amnesty International’s paper on the European Union’s arms exports.


For those Brits who are ashamed of their government’s conduct, maybe you could help your government back to the path of accountability here.


Rosemary Ekosso is with the International Court of Justice, the Hague, Netherlands. She blogs at Ekosso.com


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