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Reaping What Is Sown – South African Arms Deal

The deliberations of the conference of the Gothenburg Process held in London in October 2010 provide the opportunity for reflection upon the effectiveness and efficacy of faith based advocacy for disarmament. Now in its tenth year, the Gothenburg Process is driven by four Swedish organisations which have, through their tenacity and vision, extended the scope of their activities to a global scale and have spawned similar processes in Latin America and Asia.

It is right and proper that the origins of the Gothenburg Process are in Sweden. As one of the most free and most egalitarian societies in the world, Sweden is able to claim moral leadership both with humility and a sense of mission. Sweden was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa; its commitment to the rule of law and the notions of constitutionalism are unquestioned and its human rights record a shining example to all nations which aspire to provide their citizens with dignity, equality and freedom.

Sweden is also a major arms manufacturer. It has a thriving arms industry which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and appears to be immune to the strictures of the economic meltdown that has affected so many facets of modern life following the sub-prime crisis.

It was the Nobel prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi who said: “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” The London conference, dubbed Gothenburg Process IV, brought together a good cross section of ecumenically inclined religious leaders, non-governmental organisations, researchers, academics, civil servants and even representatives of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and arms industry. Politicians were conspicuous by their absence, even though any decisions regarding the adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty or other steps aimed at disarmament and the achievement of world peace will have to be made by politicians. Nevertheless, the conference was an opportunity to think what nobody else has thought.

The conference did receive chilling input from one ex-politician. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of parliament in South Africa, now based in London and furiously fighting to make a deadline for his next book, took the delegates through the sad facts of the arms deal which South Africa concluded in 1999, when it was not yet a crime in the UK and Germany to bribe foreign officials. Feinstein opened his presentation with a simple but significant statement: the global trade in arms undermines accountable democracy.

It is certainly so that the South African arms deal has unleashed a culture of corruption with impunity in the most recently liberated corner of Africa. Despite ample evidence of corruption in all facets of the deal the prosecuting authorities in the countries involved, with the exception of Sweden, have displayed little appetite for exacting accountability and holding those responsible for the corruption criminally liable for their actions. The Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (SweFOR) has laid charges of corruption against SAAB, the manufacturer of the Jas Gripen aircraft which it, in partnership with British Aerospace, delivered to South Africa. The SweFOR charges are under investigation by the Swedish prosecuting authorities.

The corruption exposed by Feinstein both at the conference and in his book “After the Party” affords a solid basis for cancelling the arms deals. This implies a return of all of the arms thus far delivered to the manufacturers and the refund of all money paid for them. Ironically, this includes the bribes, which formed part of the purchase consideration negotiated. The fraud and corruption escape clauses in the contracts also make provision for the payment of damages in the event of wrongdoing being proved.

There is accordingly a lot turning on the Swedish investigation of the corruption everyone has seen. The official disinclination to suffer the consequences of, firstly, criminal charges being tried and, secondly, of restitution of the status ante quo if corruption is proved in court puts the prosecutors under pressure to do what has been done elsewhere – allow the matter to be swept under the copious carpet kept for such purposes by arms exporting countries in Europe.

There is however a downside to such a course of action. The undermining of accountable government, both in arms exporting countries in Europe and in the more fragile democracies to which arms are exported, will continue apace and with greater boldness. This has already been seen in South Africa, where the governing party thinks nothing of investing in contractors who do business with the state. The president, whose signature tune is “Bring me my machine gun”, narrowly avoided prosecution on charges of corruption which were dubiously withdrawn shortly before his election. The police have closed their investigations despite the overwhelming amount of evidence available to them. The political will to address the corruption is absent.

This is what the arms exporting industries of Europe have sown. What will the harvest for reaping be? There is a real risk that South Africa will become a failed state, like its northern neighbour Zimbabwe. The consequences of such a failure will impact directly on Europe, especially in those countries which have their citizens or descendants of their citizens living in South Africa. A meltdown in South Africa will release a wave of refugees far more numerous than has occurred with Zimbabwe. Because there is nowhere to go in Africa, it is likely that the refugees will seek asylum in Europe, thereby putting great pressure and expense upon the nations to which they flee. The cost of undoing the crooked arms deals will pale into insignificance when compared with the human misery and cost involved in coping with the consequences of the failure of South Africa as a democratic state. And all this is possible without a single weapon sold in terms of the arms deal being used.

The iconic status South Africa enjoys, and the miraculous way in which it managed its transition to democracy both militate against the failed state scenario. Nevertheless, it is within the power of European governments and prosecution services to take effective steps to guard against the failure of South Africa’s democratic order. This can easily be done by holding those responsible for the bribery and corruption in the South African arms deal to account. Informed self-interest and simple morality both dictate that it is the right thing to do.

“The tyrant has nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them, if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?”

“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”

– Étienne de La Boétie 1570 The Politics of Obedience.

Paul Hoffman SC
5th Nov 2010

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