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Patriotism or profit?
Symon Hill reports on campaigners’ efforts to put BAE Sytems’ activities ‘on the record’
The chairman of the arms company BAE Systems has refused to rule out arms sales to countries that threaten the UK.
In a heated annual general meeting (AGM) in the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London, chairman Dick Olver insisted that he was ‘passionate’ about British industry. He defended himself from accusations that he is more concerned with profit than patriotism.
In a room full of BAE images of union flags, campaigners pointed out that the UK now accounts for only a minority of BAE’s business.
Dick Olver avoided a question from a shareholder who asked him to ‘guarantee’ that he would not sell arms to ‘countries which threaten the UK’. To shouts of ‘answer the question!’, Olver only repeated unspecific comments about ‘rigorous standards’.
The majority of questions were asked by supporters of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), who buy single shares to gain access to the AGM. The activists were themselves heckled by traditional shareholders.
The atmosphere in the room was set by the first question, asked by South African former MP Andrew Feinstein, who led attempts to probe a huge BAE deal with his country. As the tension rose, he quoted Desmond Tutu’s claim that the deal ‘unleashed a culture of corruption that has seriously undermined the transition from apartheid to democracy’.
Andrew Feinstein challenged Olver on BAE’s recent ‘plea bargains’. In February, British and US authorities agreed to drop corruption investigations in return for relatively small payouts and confessions of guilt over more minor offences.
But Andrew Feinstein said that the plea bargains contradict
BAE Systems factfile
• BAE is the world’s largest arms company. • Around 95% of BAE’s sales are military. They include fighter aircraft, warships, tanks and artillery. • BAE made £18.5bn in 2008. • BAE has military customers in over 100 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. • BAE has recently sold arms to both India and Pakistan. • BAE is facing corruption allegations in five continents.
Olver’s earlier claims about BAE’s innocence.
‘You have lied to the shareholders of this company,’ he insisted, ‘If you have a shred of personal integrity… you will today publicly apologise to the shareholders and the communities you misled and you will resign with immediate effect’.
Dick Olver rejected the allegations ‘with every sinew of my being’. He added, ‘I have spent six years doing precisely the opposite of what you suggest’.
Under further questioning, Dick Olver admitted that no director or senior employee had resigned, even though BAE had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to mislead the US Department of Justice. He was jeered as he claimed that none of them knew the company was misleading anyone.
Demonstrators gathered in a peaceful protest outside the AGM to form a ‘People’s Jury’ and put a giant puppet of Dick Olver ‘in the dock’.
CAAT’s Sarah Waldron described this as ‘an attempt to get the true facts about BAE’s activities onto the record, given that they are now very unlikely to reach court, thanks to the shameful plea bargains between BAE and the UK and US authorities.’
the Friend, 14 May 2010