Last week a group of anti-arms trade campaigners enacted the annual ritual of traipsing down to Farnborough air base, for the Annual General Meeting of the UK’s largest arms company, BAE Systems. Each of us possessed one share, allowing us to attend the meeting and ask questions of Sir Roger Carr, Chairman of the Board of Directors.
We go to this because we want to hold the country’s top arms dealers to account. We’re not going to let them have their annual jamboree without someone there to spoil the party and remind them of the human cost of their profits.
Our questions were, unsurprisingly, mostly about Yemen, where BAE-made fighter aircraft form a key part of the Saudi Air Force that is wreaking such utter devastation in the country. The Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing bombing campaign has caused thousands of civilian deaths, while destroying schools, hospitals, factories, and agricultural land and facilities. Together with the Saudi-led blockade, the bombing campaign is driving Yemen into famine, with the UN estimating that the total death toll of the war, direct and indirect, could reach 230,000 by the end of 2019.
Carr had a number of lines of defence to the charge that BAE was aiding and abetting this slaughter. One was to act like a Saudi ambassador, insisting that the Kingdom had no choice but to go to war in Yemen, to defend its people against Houthi missile attacks, fight ‘terrorism’, and restore the legitimate government of President Hadi, overthrown by the Houthi rebels in 2014.
However, Carr’s justifications for the war, painting the Saudi regime as the gentlest lovers of peace, forced into a war they never wanted, crumbles upon the slightest analysis.
The truth is, it is a war of choice for Saudi Arabia and its coalition. Houthi rule has been deeply unpleasant in many ways, but did not threaten Saudi Arabia or its neighbors. The sporadic Houthi missile attacks on Saudi targets started only after the coalition bombing campaign started in March 2015. The real reason for the war is that Saudi Arabia saw the hand of Iran in the Houthi takeover and was determined to counter its regional rival, whatever the cost.
As for fighting terror: some of the militia armed by Saudi and the UAE – often with western-supplied arms – have been reported as having links to Al Qaeda and even Daesh. Saudi Arabia has also reportedly paid for and brought over thousands of Sudanese irregular forces and mercenaries to fight its ground-war; including child soldiers, as well as former Janjaweed militia, responsible for mass atrocities in Darfur.
But even if the war itself were in some sense ‘just’, this does not permit the targeting of civilians or civilian infrastructure, or attacks that fail to discriminate between civilian and military targets.
Carr had another line of defence for this. “There are wars all over the world”, he said, and the “sad inevitability” is that “civilians are always hurt.” He does not want this, and nor do the Saudis. Atrocities like the bombing of a school bus last August, that killed or injured over 50 schoolchildren, and many more similar, are nothing but tragic accidents.
If so, the Saudi-led coalition has an awful lot of ‘tragic accidents. According to the Yemen Data Project, who have tracked coalition bombing raids throughout the war, almost half of the attacks where the target could be identified were civilian. Such continuous and systematic bombing of civilian targets suggests not a series of unfortunate accidents, but, at best, a complete failure to discriminate between military and civilian, and a blatant disregard for who or what their raids hit.
The coalition has launched hundreds of attacks on targets related to agriculture and food production: agricultural land, irrigation facilities, agricultural support offices, fishing boats and ports, distribution centers, and more. Many of these facilities are far from any military target, and some have been repeatedly attacked. This doesn’t suggest a mistake: it suggests a deliberate effort to destroy the means of support for the population under Houthi rule. As one Saudi official quipped off the record “once we control them, we will feed them.”
Given the close relationship BAE has with the country’s rulers, and its 6,300 employees on the ground in Saudi Arabia, does it make any effort to find out whether their aircraft are involved in atrocities, and take steps to stop it having again? Does it, in short, conduct due diligence?
Once you got past the slick evasions about fighting terrorism, keeping the peace, being a force for stability, and getting a seat at the table by supplying arms, Carr gave a very clear answer to this question: a resounding ‘no.’ Not only did BAE not have this information, not only did it not seek this information, it is not BAE’s role to find out. According to Carr, BAE just supplies and maintains the equipment. What happens next is nothing to do with them – it is all the responsibility of the UK and Saudi governments.
This is quite extraordinary. BAE make great play of how it seeks to be a responsible company. Its commitment to the safety of its employees and customers is absolute: when accidents happen it does everything it can to investigate. It is, as Carr made clear in response to a question on carbon emissions, very concerned about their environmental impact. In all this, BAE professes to be willing to go beyond anything prescribed by government.
So the company recognises its corporate responsibility for the impact of its activities, for everything except the impact of their weapons on human bodies. On this point, it washes its hands and refer us to the powers that be. Such an abrogation of responsibility is beyond hypocrisy: it is an atrocious disregard for human life and human suffering.
As long as BAE continues arming and supporting human rights abusing regimes around the world, we will oppose it every step of the way. “I hope I am not here next year answering questions about Yemen” said Carr. That is something we can all agree on.