Integrity corrupted

By Symon Hill
November 7, 2009

I’m sure that I’m not the only person feeling somewhat taken aback by the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday about corruption in Afghanistan.

Gordon Brown suggested that the Karzai government had become a byword for corruption. He appears to have forgotten that it is only three years since his predecessor Tony Blair intervened to cut short a Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE Systems’ arms deals with the brutal government of Saudi Arabia. The inquiry related to allegations of multibillion pound bribery. Blair’s action followed months of lobbying by both BAE and the Saudi regime.

Although Brown has not bowed to the arms dealers’ wishes to the same extent as Blair, he turned out to be a strenuous defender of the decision to cancel the investigation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) later heavily criticised the UK authorities for neglecting their responsibilities under the international convention against bribery.

This makes it rather difficult for Brown to be taken seriously in his comments on the Afghan government, however much Western politicians try to give the impression that corruption is something that happens “over there”. I have lost count of the number of times that people have told me that it’s OK to pay bribes in Saudi Arabia, because “they do things differently over there”. This argument was put to me by the Tory MP Patrick Nicholls last week, when I debated against him on Press TV.

By the same logic, we could justify the denial of democracy in Saudi Arabia and all the other abuses of human rights which BAE’s friends in the Saudi government inflict upon their people. There is something smugly arrogant about implying that British businesspeople engage in bribery only if forced to do so by respect for local customs.

In reality, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who lose out due to corruption. This week, over 100 faith leaders wrote to the United Nations General Secretary to insist that corruption is severely hampering attempts to reduce global poverty.

But the strangest thing about Brown’s speech is his insistence that the UK will not “walk away” from Afghanistan. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the UK government, with the support of the opposition, will continue to send British soldiers to their deaths in defence of the same government that Brown has now labelled as corrupt. And this is eight years after the troops were sent in to bring democracy.

It’s an attitude that I will find hard to stomach as I watch Brown and Cameron lay their wreaths at the cenotaph tomorrow.

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