Imagine you’ve been burgled and (by a small miracle!) someone is up in court, charged with the burglary. How impressed would you be if the accused said, "OK, I did do it – but you have to understand. I’m a poor student at the local university and all the French and US students there steal things too, so it wouldn’t be fair if I was left out and had to make do without the proceeds of crime too?" Not very I think! But that’s pretty much the excuse so often rolled out to brush away corruption around international arms deals – everyone else gives out bribes you know, and it would be so unfair and unforgivable if we didn’t too.
So – despite the allegations involving huge sums of money and numerous senior people – both Labour and the Conservatives have been happy for the corruption investigation around the Al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia to be dropped. And it’s the only area of crime (other than graffiti!) where – when campaigning against it – I’ve encountered a handful of people saying, "but it’s ok".
Well – I beg to differ on several counts!
First – paying bribes to get a contract like this is illegal. This is not a matter of business – this is a matter of criminal behaviour. If you don’t like the idea of your burglar or mugger just shrugging off the law and saying, "why should it apply to me?" you’ve got to address head on the question of why the law shouldn’t apply to arms corruption, rather than just shrug your shoulders and say, "oh, but others do it, so it must be ok".
Second – and perhaps the argument that will be most persuasive to those who say that any rocking of the boat (or upsetting of the gravy train) will damage our ability to get contracts – and so cost us jobs – many in the City and British business have in fact said that British business and our export trade have been damaged overall by the Al Yamamah affair. The damage to our reputation – as honest people to do business with – has hit people in many other walks of business.
Third – corruption begets corruption. Corruption and bribery seeps out to a wider and wider range of behaviour unless it is tackled firmly. The long-term damage from a government sinking under corruption and bribery is massive – to the country itself and also to the UK’s own long-term interests. Governments falling into chaos are often the breeding ground for extremism and catastrophes that hit innocent people and fuel violent conflict.
Fourth – because of this, turning a blind eye to high-level corruption isn’t a necessary compromise to work with countries like Saudi in the fight against terrorism. Rather, it makes the work of terrorists easier because tapping into anger at corrupt governments is one of their sources of support.
Fifth – stopping corruption in big arms deals is a realistic aim. There are a very limited number of players in the field capable of supplying these massive contracts, and there is a strong international will – from governments and suppliers – to cut out the corruptions. After all the business will still be there to be competed over – but cutting out corruption will actually cut out a business cost to them all.
The UK’s behaviour has seriously hit this international anti-corruption drive – but with our full backing it has a real chance of success. Far from other countries taking a soft line on corruption – they are taking it seriously: the US regularly deploy the forces of law, France has prosecuted eight people under the OECD international convention that Labour here so likes to walk away from and earlier this summer South Africa signed up to the convention too.
Finally, just to be clear – I am talking about bribes and not about commissions. Commissions are legitimate and paid to those who have done the work to bring a project and its contractors to a deal. Corruption is something different – and the need for legitimate and proportionate payments for people who do legitimate work does not somehow make bribes necessary or inevitable.
So, for me – corruption is a crime, and I don’t think criminals should get away with it.
This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.
(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007