The board of multinational arms firm BAE Systems struggled to cope with a string of embarrassing questions at their Annual General Meeting in London yesterday (6 May).
BAE's chair Dick Olver claimed that the company aspired to be a “leader” in business ethics before being challenged over corruption, deals with dictators and involvement in the nuclear weapons industry.
Despite emphasising corporate responsibility, Olver and his chief executive Ian King were faced with questions about the company's arms deals with brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia. They stated that BAE sometimes turned down business for ethical reasons, but gave no examples when questioned. Towards the end of the meeting, a flustered Olver eventually admitted “we do what we do”.
Andrew Feinstein, formerly a South African MP, was amongst the many individuals asking questions about bribery. Although a high-profile inquiry by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into Saudi arms deals was dropped in 2006 following BAE and Saudi pressure, Olver insisted that the company was co-operating with SFO investigations into other deals. However, when questioned, he appeared unable to remember how many investigations were underway.
In what some saw as a surprising admission, Olver declared BAE's desire to be involved in the production of nuclear submarines should the UK government go ahead with the renewal of Trident.
At one point, BAE director Andy Ingils was greeted with laughter and jeers when he said that he wanted to make weapons environmentally friendly. An attempt by BAE to promote so-called “green munitions” in 2006 was greeted with derision across the media.
“BAE's reports on 'ethics' and 'corporate responsibility' are little more than fairy tales, and not very good ones at that” said Kaye Stearman, spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) after the meeting. “BAE should not expect talk of ethics to be taken seriously from a company that arms countries in conflict and human rights-abusing regimes and that lobbied the UK Government to drop a criminal investigation. We will continue to press for all allegations to be fully investigated by the SFO.”