Interview with Andrew Feinstein on corruption in the global arms trade

In 1999 South Africa suffered a terrible blow to its fledgling democracy. In a country still reeling from the socio-economic damage inflicted by over 300 years of legalized racism, an arms deal was struck that would damage it for years to come. Andrew Feinstein was an MP at the time, and was forced out of government when he protested against the huge levels of corruption he was witnessing.



‘[South Africa] decided to spend what would amount to about £6 billion on weapons that the country didn’t need, and has barely used. Almost £300 million of bribes were paid on those deals. This happened at a time when the then president Thabo Mbeki was claiming that the government could not afford to provide the antiretroviral medication needed for the 5.5 million South Africans who were HIV positive at the time. It gives some sense of the impact this deal had.’

The processes that allowed this deal to happen, though astounding, actually paint a picture more of the status quo than of the illegal fringes of the trade. The then defence minister Joe Modisa turned down 9 offers of defense contracts, finally deciding to go for a joint deal with Saab and BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms manufacturer. This offer was 2 ½ times as expensive as that of the closest competitor’s, and was accompanied by millions of pounds of ‘economic offsets’ – ostensibly promises of wider economic investment, but in reality an ‘incredibly good conduit for bribes to key decision makers’. 12 of the 26 jets purchased have never been flown, as South Africa can’t actually afford to run them. What happened then was typical of the revolving door seen the world over between government ministries and the arms industry:

‘Joe Modisa left government quite literally weeks after that contract was signed, and he joined a defence company (Conlog) as chairman, in which he had had bought for him millions of pound worth of shares. And surprise surprise, that company were the recipient of at least 30 Million Rand from offset projects initiated by BAE systems.’

The School of Public Health at Harvard University estimate that in the 5 years after the deal was signed, due to the state’s refusal to provide antiretrovirals to those who couldn’t afford them privately, up to 355,000 South Africans died avoidable deaths.

Feinstein now lives in the UK, and has spent the last 11 years researching the murky world of the global arms trade. Time and time again, his research picks out the complicit partnership of the British government and BAE Systems as one of the most corrupt in the world.

‘It is BAE, with the support of the UK government, which outside of China and Russia, are probably the most deviant and devious of operators, anywhere in the world… It was engaged in the biggest ever arms deal, with Saudi Arabia – a deal worth £48billion – in which £6billion of commissions were paid. Now, a small percentage of that would have been legitimate payments for people that did work, but the vast majority would have been what you or I would understand as bribes.’

It was this deal in particular that has caught the attention of the press and international investigators. But in 2006, Tony Blair stepped in to halt the investigation in to BAE’s foul play. The company have only ever been held to account on accusations of accounting irregularities, rather than the much more serious charges of bribery that they stand accused of. As for any further action against the company, the serious fraud office agreed not to allege corruption against BAE for a further 10 years. Feinstein is in no doubt about the kind of relationship that holds between the government and their favorite manufacturer:

‘It was Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, that said that BAE has the keys to the back door of 10 Downing street. And my contention is that they not only have the keys to the back door, they seem to have the keys to the front door and the prime ministers bedroom. This company is above the law.’

So if the internationally regulated arms trade is thoroughly corrupt, what constitutes an illegal market? The reality, it seems, is that the lines between the internationally regulated arms trade and the so-called illegal arms trade are remarkably blurred. Take the case of Victor Bout for instance, a notorious arms dealer who was recently caught in a sting operation trying to sell weaponry to agents posing as members of Colombian militant group FARC. Despite creating an arms dealing empire out of the collapse of the Soviet Union that helped fuel some of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history, his relationship with the US is no simple matter.

‘While there was an Interpol warrant out for his arrest, between 2003 and 2005 he made 10s of millions of dollars ferrying equipment, weapons and ammunition into Baghdad for the United States department of defense. There are so many ways in which the so-called clean weapons trade – which is nothing of the sort – is quite literally in bed with the illicit trade. And together they make a killing, both literally and metaphorically, around the world.’

But as well as the more overt complicity of governments, manufacturers and crooked dealers, there are many less direct instances of bloody ironies to be found. Many of these stem from the flippant and often ethically nonchalant foreign policies of the governments that lead the way.

‘In terms of the Arab Spring, we need to bear in mind that while Cameron was talking about how proud he was of Britain’s role in the overthrow of Gadhafi, he failed to mention the £120 million of weapons the UK has sold to Gadhafi since 2004.’

The irony of this story is not merely that the first thing NATO had to do in their ‘intervention’ was to destroy the weapons its own states had been selling Gadhafi. It is also the issue of what happened to the weapons after the dictator was deposed.

‘Gadhafi was sold more weaponry than he could use. He didn’t have the military personnel to use everything he bought. So a lot of it was stockpiled in warehouses. Surprise surprise, during the transition, that stuff was unguarded, and a whole lot of it has turned up on the world’s black weapons markets already. So, if you’ve got a spare $50,000, you can buy yourself a surface to air missile system on the periphery of Libya, or Egypt, which can take down a commercial jet airliner.’

As the UN sits down to finalize a new international arms trade treaty next year, one hopes that efforts will be made to enforce both transparency and accountability on governments that have let a deadly industry run riot.

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