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Anti-arms trade campaigners celebrate a High Court judgement against the government
Symon Hill of Campaign Against Arms Trade is buzzing with the excitement of a remarkable High Court victory. He forages through my hefty pile of BAE-judicial-review-related clippings–the story was strewn across the pages of all the national dailies–and upon finding the desired article takes great delight in quoting the Financial Times:
“What started as a David versus Goliath challenge, brought by a group of activists dismissed as ‘treehuggers’, yesterday culminated in a damning condemnation of the government that is likely to reverberate for years to come.”
The FT may seem an unlikely source of approbation for activists, but this report sums up the sheer magnitude of what has been achieved, and of its implications. CAAT and the research and advocacy group The Corner House challenged the December 2006 decision by the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption surrounding the £43bn al-Yamamah arms deal between Saudi Arabia, arms company BAE Systems and the British government.
On 10 April, their efforts paid off when the High Court declared that the SFO’s decision had been illegal.
Symon enthuses on this verdict, careful to ensure an equitable distribution of credit for the triumph:
“We didn’t dare hope too much, let alone assume that we’d win, and it’s brilliant. It’s not just a victory for the CAAT staff or the Corner House staff; it’s the thousands of people who’ve been involved, who’ve sent postcards to the prime minister, who’ve given donations, who’ve signed petitions, who’ve sent supportive messages to the office. This is a victory for everyone who believes that arms dealers shouldn’t be above the law and it’s a great victory for the peace movement as a whole.”
Symon adds: “Personally I’ve always been cautious about using the legal system for campaigning but it just seemed so obvious on this occasion.”
Within 24 hours of the inquiry being dropped CAAT had been contacted by three different solicitors offering to represent them, and The Corner House (who had worked with CAAT on other issues previously) had expressed their keenness to be involved: “so within 24 hours of the inquiry being dropped we announced that we were looking at legal action.”
With a special dispensation (known as “The Corner House principle” since the organisation was the first to be granted it back in 2005) capping the cost the campaigners would be liable for in recognition that the case was put forth in the public interest, the organisations began their challenge in December 2006.
CAAT’s knowledge of BAE and the al-Yamamah arms deal and Corner House’s more general anti-corruption research combined to devastating effect in the courtroom.
A minority felt the legal action was the wrong path to take – that it would not work, or that it indicated a waning radicalism, something Symon rejects forcefully: “I think in the last year and a half CAAT has really made a case to the peace movement generally and to campaigners generally that radicalism and effectiveness are not contradictory things.”
In any case, Symon points out: “It was never legal action by itself, it was legal action in conjunction with public campaigning, media work, parliamentary lobbying and some of our supporters continuing to pursue direct action against BAE.”
The implications of the legal victory and the accompanying campaign are far reaching.
According to Symon: “It will make it harder for the government to [risk being] seen as subservient to BAE, and it will make BAE more reluctant to be too over the top in trying to influence government. A lot of implications are not strictly tangible but I think in twenty years’ time when students are studying the history of the end of the British arms trade, they’ll see this as a key moment.”
Its repercussions will also be felt in the more general domain of corruption. “It certainly brings to the fore the importance of tackling corruption and of Britain’s somewhat hypocritical position,” observes Sarah Sexton, a Corner House director.
Sarah adds: “Organisations who work specifically on corruption have said that the actual wording of the judgement is really useful for them, that they can use it in their own lobbying work”.
However, she also cautions against over-celebrating. The government has already responded by publishing a draft bill “which would give the attorney general very strong powers, which would mean that in future a judicial review would just never happen. Efforts have now to be directed to stop these elements of the bill.”
Using the momentum amassed from the campaign to date, The Corner House, supported by CAAT, will be leading a drive against the bill so that campaigners in the future will be able to replicate this astonishing victory.
A judicial review is the power of a court to review the actions of public sector bodies in terms of their legality or constitutionality.
2004 The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) initiates investigation into BAE corruption in its arms deals with Saudi Arabia
November 2006 Reports that the Saudi government threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with UK and cancel order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft if the investigation not stopped
8 December 2006 Blair secretly urges end to BAE-Saudi corruption investigation – though this is not revealed for another year.
14 December 2006 SFO announces investigation ending stating that otherwise Saudi Arabia would withdraw security cooperation with UK
18 December 2006 Corner House and CAAT write to UK government arguing the SFO decision was unlawful
23 February 2007 Corner House and CAAT begin application for a judicial review (a court proceeding where a judge reviews the lawfulness of a public body action) but it is delayed because of spying by BAE
19 April 2007 CAAT and The Corner House lodge full application
29 May 2007 High Court Judge refuses to grant permission for full judicial review hearing so Corner House and CAAT request formal hearing before a judge to argue why the case should proceed
9 November 2007 Permission granted to bring judicial review
14-15 February 2008 Judicial review hearing
10 April 2008 High Court rules that the SFO director acted unlawfully in halting the investigation
Send your congratulations to: Campaign Against the Arms Trade, 11 Goodwin St, London N4 3HQ; 02072810279; http://www.caat.org.uk The Corner House, Station Rd, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ; 08453307928; http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk See also their joint site: http://www.controlbae.org The next Control BAE action will be at the company’s AGM on 7 May at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary, London SW1P 3EE.