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In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Andrew Feinstein, former South African MP for the anti-apartheid African National Congress, and a writer, speaker, critic and campaigner in the effort to better regulate the global arms trade. His most recent book, The Shadow World, looks at the connections between political corruption, the arms trade, and the atrocities that result. His work is especially relevant right now, as the UN is on the verge of adopting the first ever international arms trade treaty


Welcome. I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. On Thursday, the United Nations began the process of adopting the first international treaty to regulate the global arms trade, a $70 billion business. It was blocked by Iran, Syria and North Korea, who complained the treaty failed to ban sales to rebel groups, and the General Assembly has plans to put the draft to a vote on Tuesday. What isn’t talked about much is how political corruption in wealthy, developed countries may be the most important factor involved, even half a world away from the mass atrocities it can lead to.

Joining me to speak on the complex issues and implications involved in the international arms trade, and where it all originates from, is Andrew Feinstein. He’s the founding co-director of Corruption Watch in London, and a former South African parliament member for the African National Congress. They’re the political party born out of the anti-apartheid movement; he was known as “Mr. Clean” when he was with them. He’s also a prolific author, speaker and critic on government corruption and the transnational arms trade. Hello, Andrew. So good to have you with us today. 

Hi, Jared. Great to be with you.

You have a tendency to tackle some pretty bold intellectual targets — government corruption, illegal arms trading, backroom bribery  pretty large, systemic issues. What has led you to take these “big” approaches?

Well, I think that what struck me while a member of parliament in South Africa, was that the trade in weapons has the ability to have effects not just on conflicts, on their brutality, sometimes their longevity — but also on issues of governance and the rule of law, in both buying and selling countries. And having experienced this first hand in a very young democracy like South Africa, just four years after our first democratic elections, I became interested in how this manifests globally, and was shocked to discover that South Africa was just one of countless examples of the iniquitous impact of the global trade in arms. But rather than looking at isolated cases, it’s really the way in which the trade works on a systemic basis that’s really important. So that meant looking at issues like the very highest levels of governance, global financial systems and money laundering, and how they work. So certainly not by choice, Jared, but by necessity.

What do you think the implications of that kind of approach can have for finding solutions and finding options for prevention?

I think the two approaches need to be married, to find solutions and to look at issues of prevention. The first is the systemic picture. I don’t think one can actually develop meaningful solutions without an understanding of how these things work, perhaps at the most exalted level, if one can call it that — the systems of governance, the systems of international trade. But at the same time the reality is that any particular circumstance will have a very unique context. So one has to look at both of those aspects to be able to develop solutions that could be meaningful and practical on the ground.

What have you found to be the relationship between government corruption, or the seeds of government corruption, the international arms trade, and the occurrence of mass atrocities?

Let’s deal with each of those, very quickly, on their own. The first is, in terms of levels of government corruption, one needs to understand the extraordinary figures that were extrapolated from information gleaned by a wonderful researcher called Joe Roeber, from national treasuries and intelligence agencies of the world’s most powerful nations. He calculated that with figures up to the end of 2003, the arms trade accounted for around 40 percent of all corruption, in all global trade. Which is an astonishing figure, and if one looks, for instance, at the world’s biggest arms deal to date — between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, a deal worth 43 billion British pounds — British police have estimated that 6 billion pounds of bribes were paid on that deal alone. And this included to some incredibly powerful individuals. So the scale of the bribery and corruption is massive. Those impacts, as I have mentioned, are not just on the exchequers of those countries, but on the way they’re governed and on the rule of law, because the corruption leads to decisions that are often not in the national interest, or even in the best defense interests of the buying country. So that’s the one dimension of it.

The second dimension, how does this feed into mass atrocities? Well, the other characteristic of the global arms trade that makes it fairly unique in world trade, is that everything that happens in the trade takes place behind a veil of national security-imposed secrecy. So even when there is criminal conduct or illegal conduct taking place, it is hidden from us, the public. I have made I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of freedom-of-information requests around the world, and I never get any information from them because I’m always told that the matters fall under national security. So that secrecy allows extraordinary things to happen. Together with an academic from the University of British Columbia, I’ve managed to identify 502 violations of UN arms embargoes since they were introduced. Two of those have led to any legal action of any sort. One led to a conviction.

So, taking the corruption, taking the secrecy, this means that things can happen in the trade in weapons that we know nothing about, that can enable the commission and execution of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Let me give you just one example. You know, when we think of the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, people have the sense of crazed citizens in a state, a mental state, that is inexplicable to us. Running around and murdering their fellow countrymen with machetes. The reality is far more complex than that. The reality is that for many years leading up to the genocide, the then-regime in Rwanda engaged in a massive, massive process of weaponizing and militarizing one ethnic group in the society, against all sorts of legal sanctions. But this weaponization — which led from Rwanda being a complete minnow in the African arms trade to, over a period of a couple of years, being amongst the highest spenders on weaponry — this took place clandestinely, but with the active facilitation of the governments of France, South Africa, and Egypt, amongst others, with the intimate involvement of large arms companies and individual arms dealers. And this happened in spite of arms embargoes, in spite of attempts to police what was going on in Rwanda. So the nature of the arms trade directly impacts the way in which situations or conflicts can be weaponized that increase the likelihood of those conflicts leading to mass atrocities or crimes against humanity.

So then with these things coming up from every aspect, from every angle — the individuals in the buying country, the systemic issue between countries, and the complete lack of any enforceable mechanisms for the selling countries — it sounds like the only way to tackle this is from a systemic approach, from that large-scale angle that you take it. How do we start to make headway with such a prolific situation?

The key at a systemic level is clearly regulation. Because the reality as we sit here today, and we are just a few days away from the United Nations trying to agree an international arms trade treaty, a process that has been fraught with difficulty because of a lack of political will amongst the biggest players in the arms trade to actually change the current regulatory regime, where the global trade in bananas is more highly regulated than the trade in weapons. So yes, the solution is dependent on creating a far tougher, strongly enforced regulatory regime for weapons of all kind, for ammunition of all kind. Because we’re fortunate in that advances in technology, which have as an unfortunate by-product made killing easier, also have the by-product of making the tracking of weaponry and ammunition far easier. So at not much additional cost, we could actually be tracking every single piece of ammunition, let alone every piece of weaponry, and where it is in the world at any time. What is lacking at this point is the political will to say, “This is what we have to do, every country has to do this, and the sanctions for not doing so are so profound that it will happen.” But the lead on that has to be taken by the biggest players in the weapons trade, bearing in mind that the United States of America currently buys and sells almost as much weaponry and ammunition as the rest of the world combined.

And before people get too depressed, let me repeat again — and this is really based on something that the American anthropologist Margaret Mead said many decades ago — it is small groups of committed, thoughtful citizens who change history. Never doubt that that is the case, and that it has always been so. So while the challenges are huge, I do believe that if enough people are prepared to engage on this issue, it is possible — and I say this as a former politician myself — it is possible to change political will. And on this issue that’s what we have to do.

Well, I’m inspired. I hope you’ll keep inspiring people with that very active approach to making people understand that they have the ability to effect some of that momentum.

Thanks, Jared. Thanks very much for your time in doing this.


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