News from Bristol

Sorry I am so late in posting this. But it is a good time for it, as we have just had a successful public meeting this evening organised by Bristol CAAT, on the title “A law unto themselves: BAE, the arms trade and corruption”. The speakers were Nick Gilby (fellow blogger here) and Nick Hildyard of Cornerhouse.

We relaunched Bristol CAAT just about two years ago – we’ve been a bit on and off to be honest, based most of the time round a few most active people, but we’ve managed to put on a number of pretty good events – public meetings, dayschools, forums, protests at careers fairs where arms companies were recruiting and the like – as well as a very good research programme carried out by students at Bristol University, Tom, Maeve and Sarika, pulling together information on the activities of local arms company bases – including major BAE and Rolls Royce plants. Lately, we’ve had a few new people getting involved and enthused, so we’re hoping to become more active in the near future.

Bristol is a friendly place for activists, with strong Stop the War groups, pro-Palestine activists (sometimes it seems like half the Bristol activist community – myself included – have been to Palestine), a substantial Anarchist community, and the like. So we fit well into the ‘scene’, although as always it’s a tough job getting people involved on a regular basis when there are so many other calls on people’s activism, and no-one can do everything!

But to our meeting. It was well-attended, with about 35 people there at the Redland Friends Meeting House, a majority of whom I’d never met before, which is always a good sign. Nick Gilby talked the history of UK government involvement and collusion in bribery to obtain major arms details. This material has come from months of painstaking trawling through the National Archives in Kew Gardens by Nick, digging up numerous gems from tens of thousands of pages of declassified documents; gems that show just how brazen the MoD were in the 1960s and 1970s about the bribery used to win arms deals in Saudi Arabia and other countries.  After 1975, when a major arms corruption scandal broke in the US, and later on as UK arms companies were privatised, the MoD ceased to be directly involved in bribery, but maintained a policy of allowing the arms companies to get on with it, knowing full well what was going on, but being very careful to ask no questions and to ignore all evidence of corruption, however blatant. This perhaps reached its apogee in the ongoing series of multi-billion pound Al Yamamah deals with Saudi Arabia, by which BAE Systems sell the Saudis planes and all manner of other equipment and run their air-force, while allegations of vast bribes were, until recently,  ignored. In protecting these activities, so crucial to BAE, the government suppressed a National Audit Office report into the deals, and has of course recently cancelled the Serious Fraud Office investigation into corruption allegations, thus driving a coach and horses through the OECD anti-bribery convention, to which Britain is a signatory.

Nick Hildyard looked beyond the arms trade issue to answer in a far more detailed way than I had ever heard the question “So just what is wrong with bribery?” Bribery and corruption overwhelmingly affect the poor and powerless in developing countries. If you do not have power and influence, you must bribe police officers, school officials, civil servants and many others to gain access to services and to avoid being stomped upon by those in power. Corruption distorts political and economic priorities, devoting resources to the sort of large-scale capital projects – of which arms are an excellent example – which are most amenable to generating large kickbacks for decision-makers. A major dam which will displace thousands and cause untold environmental damage for dubious benefits will be preferred over many small-scale sommunity water supply projects that offer few opportunities for self-enrichment by ministers and officials. Corruption reduces a country’s tax base, and leads to large sums of capital exiting the country for foreign bank accounts, with tens of billions of dollars of dirty money flowing from the south to the north each year.

He rejected as false and racist the world-weary cynical notion that “this is just the way they do business over there” – everywhere he has travelled around the world, he said, where there is endemic corruption there is a strong anti-corruption movement on the part of those who suffer its consequences. Even within the Saudi royal family there are divisions between those who gain from these practices and those who recognise that it would be politically desirable to put a stop to it.

Nick was optimisitic that CAAT and Cornerhouse’s move for a judicial review had a good chance of bearing fruit, as our case is extremely strong legally – there are no grounds for abandoning an anti-corruption investigation under the OECD convention except on the merits of the case themselves – but if judges are to resist the enormous political pressure that will be brought to bear on them to protect the interests of the arms dealers, the public also must be involved, making it clear that they are not content to allow these corrupt and illegal practices to continue. This is not just something that can be left to the lawyers.

A lively discussion followed, and several people signed up to get involved in Bristol CAAT. All in all, a productive evening.

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

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