Monday, February 21, 2011

The price of a criminal trade


David Cameron, like many Prime Ministers before him, is looking like the worst sort of hypocrite.  On his trip to the Middle East, he is accompanied by defence contractors, and his visit coincides with a massive arms fair in Abu Dhabi.  But in an embarrassed nod to events, he stopped by Egypt to pay the very faintest of lip-service to the pro-democracy forces that recently swept the country’s dictator from power.

This is but one small example of how state authority and legitimacy has an unsavoury relationship with the weapons industry—albeit an example highlighted by the fact that the regimes that British and other arms companies have long propped up appear to be falling like dominoes across the Middle East and North Africa.

There is nothing new in this relationship.  It has been suggested that Tony Blair lobbied as part of a potentially-bribe-ridden arms deal with South Africa in 1999.  Prince Andrew, who acts as the UK’s Special Representative for International Trade, was recently reported to have attacked the press’ irritating habit of investigating corrupt British businesses.  And the foundations of British state power rest on a centuries-old link between military power and arms of the economy that were purpose-built to ensure that the sovereign, and thereafter the government, would always have the capacity to wage war for the purpose of expanding trade and influence *

BAE Systems, a key player in the international arms trade, has been accused again and again of corrupt practises (and was fined £250 million in the U.S. and a paltry £30 million in Britain over corrupt deals in Saudi Arabia and Tanzania), but was let off the hook over the biggest accusation (over an arms deal in Saudi Arabia) by the Blair government.  The extraordinary move to halt a Serious Fraud Office investigation came when the British government related that it had been blackmailed by Saudi Arabia, which threatened to cut off intelligence sharing if the investigation went ahead.  Such a move, Britain regretfully informed a seething public, would have compromised national security.

It is incredible to me that we should tolerate an industry which, indiscriminately, arms governments with wildly varying degrees of commitment to democracy (think Egypt, apartheid-era South Africa, Russia, China, Tanzania) or which make a habit of undertaking military operations that kill people in their tens when not hundreds of thousands (the U.S., Israel, Saddam-era Iraq).  It beggars belief that we should seek to rationalise the existence of a trade which is based around increasing the capacity of people to kill each other around the world.

And if the existence of such a trade, which should be criminalised as speedily as possible (an unlikely proposition, on the face of its rank profitability), isn’t offensive enough, its ties to the upper echelons of governments around the world (which are charged with promoting the well-being of their people) is worse still.


*See John Brewer’s The Sinews of Power: war, money and the English state, 1688-1783 and David Edgerton’s Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 for two historical examples.

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