Time for BAE to face justice

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
1 Oct 2009

It should not be such a surprise. A multinational arms company that sells weapons to dictators and faces corruption allegations in almost every continent in the world, is finally to face prosecution in court.

If the world were a fairer place, this would be normal. But fairness is not a quality that has ever applied to BAE Systems. The company have spent years dodging all attempts to face justice. It is something that they seem pretty good at.

But today the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) finally announced that BAE would be prosecuted on charges of multi-million pound bribery in deals involving “several countries”, thought to include South Africa, Romania, Tanzania and the Czech Republic.

This could well be the largest case of corporate corruption ever addressed by a British court.

This is a great reminder that the people with the most power do not always get their own way, although this seems to be news to the arms industry. All those who have worked to expose BAE's foul trade can celebrate - but with caution, because BAE might still get out of it. It is possible that they could reach an agreement with the SFO before the court case.

However, it is vital for justice and democracy and for Britain's reputation in the world, that BAE's bosses stand in the dock and answer the charges against them.

BAE's behaviour in the past, and the government's attitude towards it, have sent out a clear message that the rich and powerful – and arms dealers in particular – are above the law.

In 2006, BAE and the Saudi regime lobbied Tony Blair to bully the SFO into dropping an investigation into BAE's Saudi arms deals. I was working for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) at the time and even I was surprised at how blatantly BAE's influence was displayed.

When CAAT and The Corner House took the government to court over this incident, we won, with the judges describing the Saudi regime's pressure on Britain as a “succesful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the UK”. The same right-wing papers that usually rant about Britain's greatness and independence failed to mention this point as they leapt to the defence of the arms dealers.

The Law Lords later overturned this decision, saying that the Saudi regime had threatened to withdraw co-operation on counter-terrorism and that this was therefore a matter of “national security”. No-one ever explained how our security was improved by giving the message that Britain would give in to bullying.

Despite the final result, the case, and related campaign, made many more people aware of the vast undemocratic influence wielded by arms companies within the UK government. It is difficult to overestimate that influence. The former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had written in his diaries that BAE's boss had “the key to the garden door at Number Ten”. He never saw Blair take a decision which would displease BAE.

The backlash against the cancellation of the Saudi investigation made it harder for ministers, arms dealers or the SFO to act in a similar way again. Thousands of people signed CAAT's petitions and our office was flooded with messages of support from people in all walks of life. The public outrage on that occasion has contributed to the situation we face today, with BAE on the brink of prosecution.

But now, as then, there are always apologists for the arms trade who are willing to jump to BAE's side at a moment's notice. They have, of course, already gone into action today.

Tory MP Ben Wallace – himself a former arms dealer - appeared on The World at One this afternoon to describe BAE as “a British success story”. This is a bizarre claim for a multinational company which clearly exists for profit rather than patriotism. Less than a third of BAE's employees are in the UK and the company does more business with the US government than the UK's Ministry of Defence.

In 2006, BAE's supporters claimed that British jobs would be at risk if the Saudi regime cancelled their latest order due to the SFO investigation. Once the investigation had been dropped and the deal signed, BAE admitted that most of the jobs it created would be based outside the UK.

BAE's distortion of democracy has only served to damage the UK's standing in the world and to shame the British political system. BAE's chair, Dick Olver, tried to deny this when I questioned him at the BAE AGM this year, before switching off my microphone when I pursued the point.

Dick Olver, Ben Wallace and their friends will no doubt continue to resort to weak economic arguments, ignoring the reality that arms account for only 2 per cent of UK exports and well under 1 per cent of UK jobs. They will refer to BAE as a “defence company” and express their support for the “defence industry” as if the BAE planes used by Indonesian forces to bomb civilians in West Papua were somehow involved in an act of “defence”.

But BAE and their supporters are making an arrogant miscalculation if they imagine that this sort of nonsense can preserve their privileges and protect their profits forever.

They have been on the back foot ever since the outrage over the Saudi investigation showed them what the public thought of people who place themselves above the law. Now at last, they look likely to go into court over accusations that they should have answered years ago. It is time for BAE to face the music.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. From 2006 until 2009, he oversaw media relations at the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

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