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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Andrew Feinstein, Edinburgh Book Festival, 13 August 2012

Andrew Feinstein is a former member of the African National Congress and the South African Parliament, who fell out with the ANC leadership over corruption linked to a gigantic arms deal South Africa signed. His most recent book is The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade and that is what he was discussing in Edinburgh. the chair of the session described the book as hugely impressive in terms of its research and its writing, and hugely depressive in terms of the story it told. Feinstein felt a book lke this was needed because there had been no global survey for the layman of the arms trade since Anthony Sampson wrote The Arms Bazaar in 1977. He wanted to look not only at the black market in weapons but at the official inter-government transfers: and in all his researches he failed to find a single arms deal which did not involve corruption or bribery to some extent.

He was asked why there had been so much concentration on small arms. He felt that this was because after WW2 the hitherto unified anti-arms-trade movement had fragmented into "opposition to nuclear weapons" and "the rest". Non-nuclear campaigners had picked specific targets because that made for easier camoagning, whether it be landmines, cluster munitions, small arms or whatever. Also, the various agencies such as Oxfam and Amnesty International were seeing every day the end results of the trade in small arms. But as his research had shown, the downstream trade in small arms in Africa and elsewhere could not exist without the upstream "official" deals between governments which bring the weapons into the marketplace to begin with. This is why he feels that only a comprehansive global arms treaty will address the issue. Unfortunately, the USA (whose weapons purchases are roughly equal to those of the rest of the world) has just scuppered the arms treaty under consideration at the United Nations. Feinstein is no pacifist, and believes there is a place for the arms trade to permit legimitate defence, but he believes that it needs to be tightly regulated.

He took a question from a British Aerospace apologist who advanced the view that the bribes paid in the al-Yamamah deal were "Saudi's money anyway", just paid to "manage the deal". Feinstein pointed out that £1 billion was spent solely to persuade the Saudi Air Force to buy the BAe/Saab aircraft instead of the Italian one the air force wanted. This wasn't "management": this was a pure bribe. He also reminded the BAe stooge that British taxpayers were very heavily involved in such deals. Various British companies had sold arms to the Indonesian regime which were used in its genocide in East Timor. When the Indonesian economy collapsed and all its debts were written off, Britain's Export Credit Guarantee Department paid the whole cost of those weapons: which is to say, the British taxpayer picked up the tab for Indonesian genocide.

Andrew Feinstein believes that three measures would cut out around 85% of the corruption which currently surrounds the arms trade:

1) Oblige companies to list all intermediaries used in a deal; to list what they did, and how much they were paid for doing it.

2) Ban the consideration of "economic offsets" (where a company promises to invest a similar amount to its earnings from the deal into the country's economy - you buy our fighters, we'll build your hospitals, so to speak) from procurement decision-making. (The WTO already bans it for every kind of international trade except arms deals.)

3) Force companies to use only banks in their own or the buyer's countries (hence ruling out the use of tax havens and making money laundering more difficult).

These big arms dealers all have powerful political protection. As one of them put it to Feinstein, "If they wanted me in prison would I be talking freely to you now?" Remember that the British government's Serious Fraud Office was investigating the al-Yamamah deal until it was instructed to abandon its investigation by none other than Tony Blair. Powerful pals indeed.

Feinstein was fascinating, engaging, wholly convincing and highly articulate. I will definitely read his book, and recommend it to anyone else interested in current affairs.

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