Weapon Selling with an Ethical Dimension?

'In this report, together with our separately published Corporate Responsibility Report, we provide more information on our social, environmental and ethical policies.'

Friends of the Earth? No it's the rhetoric department at BAE Systems trying to make what they do sound user-friendly in their Annual Review 2004. But as readers will know what they do is not at all user-friendly.

BAE Systems (ex British Aerospace) is now one of the 10 largest arms suppliers in the world and, as they point out in the Review, 130 countries are included in their customer list i.e. most of the countries in the world. These countries are not 'defending' themselves against Martians of course but in many cases against other purchasers of BAE Systems' products. This you may say is what happens in a globalised world and that may be true, but it doesn't make it a good thing.

Perhaps there was a time when the firm could argue that it was a British firm whose main job was to protect British citizens from foreign threats. That is certainly not the case now since the US is their biggest customer and the USA is seen as the place where demand for weapons is growing most rapidly. And we shouldn't forget 'The Kingdom', as Saudi Arabia is picturesquely described in the Annual Review, with its AI Yamamah deal, slush funds and grisly human rights record - another valued customer.

Attending BAE Systems AGM is something 1 would strongly recommend to peace activists. Most of the two hour meeting was devoted to questions and most of these came from peace campaigners. This sends a message that can't be ignored. As well as campaigners those present included the 13 Board members, a number of senior staff, quite a few conventional shareholders anxious to see if this year's dividend would cover the cost of a new patio, plus a few disgruntled shareholders with issues they wanted to raise. It must be good that all these folk have a chance to reflect on what their firm is producing at their annual meeting.

A World War 2 veteran (also a veteran campaigner) wearing his army beret suggested that all new BAE Systems Board members should have to visit a war zone and see the destruction their products cause as part of their induction programme. Others referred to the dreadful carnage in poverty stricken regions where weapons help to fuel conflict over scarce resources, besides diverting money from food, education and health care. Earlier in the meeting protesters calling loudly for an end to torture and death had been removed from the hall.

It's all the more necessary to say these things because every year the literature BAE Systems produces moves further into a fantasy world and tries harder to distance itself from the bullets and missiles that kill people. So the Chief Executive can happily suggest in the review 'The company's strong position in both the US and UK markets presents opportunities for industry to support the increasingly joint nature of peacemaking and peacekeeping by our armed forces.Shades of George Orwell and the Ministry of Peace? If we want to see an end to the arms trade we have to start with a clear picture of what that trade involves and then ensure that this is brought to the attention of as many people as possible.

Mary Holmes May 2005