Democracy is under threat from arms trade, says leading commentator

By staff writers
November 1, 2009

The arms trade is undermining democracy in countries around the globe, according to Andrew Feinstein, a former MP in South Africa, who was nicknamed “Mr Clean” by the media for his determination to investigate corruption in the country.

He made the point while addressing the annual National Gathering of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) in London yesterday (31 October).

Feinstein argued that the influence of arms companies is weakening democracy in countries including South Africa and the USA. Speaking of the UK, he suggested that the arms industry “profoundly undermines the strength and vigour of the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world”.

While the arms trade has long been criticised by churches, faith groups and NGOs, recent years have seen campaigners increasing their emphasis on the way that the power of arms companies distorts political and economic processes.

Feinstein shot to prominence in South Africa in the late 1990s when, as an MP, he refused to ignore allegations of corruption in his government's multi-billion pound arms deal with BAE Systems. He later resigned from the governing African National Congress (ANC) and left Parliament.

The deal has recently hit the headlines again due to a decision by the UK's Serious Fraud Office to bring charges against BAE. The charges involve corruption allegations in deals with several countries, thought to include South Africa.

“Almost as important as the deal itself was the impact it had on South Africa's young democracy,” said Feinstein yesterday. As a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, he expressed his sadness that the ANC government had “spent £18 billion on arms we don't need and will never use” while telling hundreds of thousands of people who were HIV positive “that we couldn't afford the anti-retroviral medication”.

CAAT supporters gave an enthusiastic response to Feinstein's message, which formed the key part of a day of workshops and discussions. It was followed today (1 November) by CAAT's first Universities Network Gathering, called due to the growth of anti-arms movements amongst students in Britain.

A presentation of CAAT's work over the last year focused on the organisation's exposure of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a government department that promotes British exports. CAAT has revealed that UKTI employs more civil servants to promote arms exports than to support all other sectors combined – even though arms account for less than 2 per cent of UK exports.

Situations such as this have fuelled allegations about the influence enjoyed within the British government by arms companies such as BAE. The former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, wrote in 2004 that the chair of BAE had “the keys to the garden door at Number Ten”.

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