The chairman of one of the world's largest arms companies has said that he expects the Arms Trade Treaty to make no difference to his firm's business.
The Treaty is expected to be ratified in the next few months, but critics have repeatedly said that it will have little effect while arms dealers retain so much influence over governments such as those of the UK and US.
Roger Carr, the new chairman of BAE Systems, was responding to questions at his company's Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Hampshire in the UK when he was asked about the effect of the Treaty. He said that BAE Systems supported the Treaty because it is a “responsible company” but that it is “not expected” to make any difference.
The questioner, Christian anti-arms campaigner Symon Hill, suggested that if it makes no difference then “the Arms Trade Treaty is a sham”.
Carr replied that BAE is already abiding by the “strict” regulations laid down by the UK government and other governments with which it does business. When told the regulations were very flimsy, he said it was “not for me to judge” government policy.
The Arms Trade Treaty has been backed by a number of NGOs, including Oxfam and Amnesty International. In the UK, it has been supported by Christian groups including the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. Several of the Treaty's original supporters are now expressing doubts about whether the final version of the document will be rigorous and enforceable.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) in the UK has always been doubtful of the Treaty, suggesting that it will legitimise arms exports by powerful countries such as the US, UK, Russia and France. CAAT argues that existing regulations are already routinely overlooked or misinterpreted due to the power of arms companies within government.
Today's AGM at BAE's base in Farnborough, Hampshire was dominated by questions from opponents of the arms trade who buy single shares to gain a legal right to question the board.
While Carr showed a greater ability than his predecessor, Dick Olver, to remain calm amidst the storm, he repeatedly struggled to respond to anger about BAE's exports to oppressive regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Carr was jeered when he said that BAE's exports were “helping to preserve world peace”. He argued that this was because the Saudi Regime is an “ally” of the UK government.
He insisted, “We make equipment to preserve peace. That is why we are in business”.
Carr defended Saudi Arabia, insisting that it is a country “in transition” making “huge steps forward” in advancing the role of women, who are now allowed to stand for election in local polls. He said that such changes were “all positive and all very constructive”.
CAAT's Ann Feltham challenged Carr's description, noting that Saudi Arabia appears on the UK Foreign Office's own list of countries with human rights concerns.
Critics point out that Saudi Arabia remains the only country in which women are not permitted to drive, that Saudi elections cannot change the national government, that free expression is severely limited and that religious, political and sexual minorities are routinely persecuted.
Quaker activist Emma Anthony, campaigns officer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, insisted that high military spending damages public safety by taking money from other areas of spending. She asked Carr, “Would you ever turn down a – euphemistic – 'defence' contract in the interests of public security?”
Carr responded that it was for the government to determine public spending, but then went into a defence of government policy, insisting that the UK economy is recovering.
He said that “defence spending” had been cut, causing Anthony to respond, “I'm very glad that the war budget was cut”. Peace groups point out it has been cut by less than many areas of public expenditure
Despite repeatedly insisting that BAE is “an ethical company”, Carr was unable to give examples of decisions made by the company on ethical grounds other than the decision to abide by the law.
Carr said he respected the right of his critics to disagree and asked them to respect the structure and process of the AGM. In response, several argued that it is not a democratic or fair process. They insisted that the BAE board is a powerful entity that faces questions on only one day each year.
Seven campaigners were removed from the AGM by security guards while singing in protest against BAE's arms sales.
“The idea that arms companies like BAE can promote peace through arming dictators is simply delusional and ridiculous," insisted CAAT's Andrew Smith after the meeting.
He added, "From the way Carr spoke it was as if the third biggest arms company in the world is a mere bystander in conflict rather than a company that actively fuels it. BAE can't simply abdicate responsibility for the consequences when it arms dictators and brutal regimes like the ones in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain."