Sir Roger Carr, the new Chair of BAE Systems, hosted his first annual general meeting (AGM) this week. A large number of anti- arms trade activists with proxy shares were there to give him a welcome to remember.
There are few companies with as many reasons to be ashamed as BAE Systems. As a company with a long history characterized by corruption, whitewashing and arms sales to tyrants, they are unquestionably one of the worst corporate citizens in the world.
As you can imagine, their AGM, hosted in a sterile and remote airbase outside Farnborough, was a surreal experience, to say the least. It was a long and often nauseating lesson in evasion, denial and downright fabrication. Proceedings began with an unusual and almost Orwellian speech from Carr, in which he claimed that Europe’s largest arms company works ‘for peace at home and abroad’, a claim which was rightfully met with shock, disbelief and derision from the floor.
You could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Carr had misspoken, but it was a point he returned to throughout the subsequent questions from activists and shareholders.
Questions focused on BAE’s relationships with authoritarian regimes, including those in Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia. There was particular focus on Saudi Arabia, the largest customer for British weaponry, where BAE has sold fighter jets, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, Tactica armoured personnel vehicles and missiles. BAE manufactured the armoured vehicles that were used by Saudi Arabia to support repression of peaceful protest in Bahrain.
Sir Roger (who corrected one questioner who ‘demoted’ him by merely referring to him as Mr Carr) said that he had thought a lot about the company’s relationship with the brutal Saudi regime before accepting his new role. One questioner said that she was shocked that he could have thought about the relationship and still taken the job. She pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been condemned by Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the Economist Intelligence Unit, which listed it as the fifth most authoritarian regime in the world.
Carr justified arms sales to the regime on the basis that he believes Saudi Arabia to be a ‘country in transition’ and a ‘critical ally in defence terms, critical to world peace from our perspective’. While it may be true that there has been some limited degree of progress in some areas of Saudi society, there has also been an escalation of the crackdown against political opponents. Only last month the government passed a new ‘terrorism’ law that treats atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state.
One point that Carr kept returning to is the fact that he is not a politician and that BAE does not make judgements about what countries are its allies. Even if we ignore the fact that the company puts considerable time, money and resources into lobbying politicians at home and abroad, it is hard to see it as a dispassionate bystander in conflict rather than a company that actively fuels and profits from it.
Time and again Carr stressed that BAE’s allies are the British government’s allies and that BAE only sells weapons to countries approved by the Britain under the existing arms export legislation. This may be the case, but that doesn’t mean that companies like BAE can simply absolve themselves of any responsibility for the consequences when they arm human rights abusers.
Where Carr is right is that BAE is only able to arm and strengthen these regimes due to a combination of support from the government and a lack of any meaningful arms controls. On that point, Carr said he was supportive of the Arms Trade Treaty, which should make its supporters question how strong it really is. If Britain is serious about ending the arms trade, with its dire consequences for peace and human rights, then it should immediately stop promoting arms exports and allowing companies like BAE to profit from conflict.
Upon leaving the meeting and re-entering the real world, we were treated to a sub-standard packed lunch and a shuttle bus back to the train station. What is clear is that Carr and the rest of the board has bought into its own propaganda and a world-view in which arming tyrants can bring peace and where the human consequences of war have nothing whatsoever to do with those who provide the weapons.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade.