Former politician Andrew Feinstein wants Canadians to know the real cost of the global arms trade

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      For Andrew Feinstein, the arms trade is something he takes very personally.

      As an African National Congress member of the South African National Assembly from 1994 to 2001, he witnessed the horrific impact of this international business on his country.

      In 1999 Feinstein's homeland was in the midst of an unimaginable HIV crisis when the government decided to spend $6.2 billion on a so-called strategic-defence package.

      It’s a deal that has been marred by serious allegations of corruption ever since.

      Feinstein headed the ANC's public accounts committee in the assembly, but was fired when he sought a public inquiry.

      “This was at a time when our president, Thabo Mbeki, was saying we couldn’t afford to provide antiretroviral medication to six million South Africans who were living with HIV or AIDS,” Feinstein told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office in London, England. “According to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, there were 365,000 avoidable deaths over the next five years.”

      Most of those weapons were never used, he added.

      Since leaving political office in 2001, Feinstein has helped provide support for people with HIV and raised hell about the ramifications of international weapons sales.

      As the executive director of the U.K.-based nongovernmental organization Corruption Watch, Feinstein continues shining a light on the South African arms deal and a multitude of other such sales where there's evidence of bribery and fraud.

      "I've spent the last 17 years working on this subject," he said. "It's not just because of what these weapons do, the fact that they're deadly and brutal. It's also the fact that they reflect the very worst nature of our politics and our economics."

      Feinstein’s 2011 book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, was adapted into a feature-length documentary directed by Johan Grimonprez.

      Feinstein pointed out that there are many countries in which virtually all political parties are funded by defence companies.

      In Germany, the proceeds of illicit arms sales bankrolled former chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union for 16 years.

      There was a Canadian connection to this story. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney became ensnared in a scandal after leaving office when it was revealed that he collected $300,000 in cash payments from arms-industry lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

      The same German-Canadian businessman was also linked to political financing of Kohl's party.

      “Despite what our governments, defence companies, and what our military tell us, the global trade in arms actually undermines our democracies, undermines the rule of law,” Feinstein said. “It’s a massive contributor to global corruption and—perhaps most bizarrely of all—makes us less rather than more safe.”

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen onboard a CH-146 Griffon.
      Canadian Armed Forces

      Trudeau's rise hasn't altered the pattern

      Feinstein emphasized that the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not resulted in substantive change from when Stephen Harper was prime minister.

      To support his argument, Feinstein pointed to Canada’s export of arms to Saudi Arabia.

      According to a federal report, 20 percent of Canada’s $717 million in sales of military goods and technology in 2016 went to that country.

      Feinstein alleged that these arms sales are being used “to violate international humanitarian law, possibly in the committing of war crimes” in Yemen and Bahrain.

      “It is up to Canadian citizens to do something about this because this is being done in the name of Canadian citizens with the tax dollars of Canadian citizens,” he declared.

      The Trudeau government has emphasized that unlike its predecessor, it will join the Arms Trade Treaty, which is an international agreement that purports to regulate weapons sales.

      Feinstein, however, said that although the negotiations focused attention on this issue, the treaty itself is “incredibly weak”.

      “It mentions corruption only once in passing,” he stated. “It has no mechanism of enforceability.”

      In other words, it’s entirely dependent on the political will of governments.

      “And, in fact, we’ve seen with the sale of weaponry to Saudi Arabia during its bombing campaign of Yemen since March of 2015 that even those countries who’ve claimed to champion the international Arms Trade Treaty, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, are completely violating it in relation to their sales to Saudi Arabia," Feinstein stated. "So the very governments that are at the forefront of negotiating this treaty are, sadly, at the forefront of nullifying it and making it…irrelevant.”

      Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are huge supporters of the U.S. military industry, even though they had their differences over other issues.

      Economies don't benefit from this industry

      He also insisted that the arms trade does not help the economy, noting that the “linkage effects” to growth have not existed since the 1980s. That’s because of the magnitude of state subsidies, among other factors.

      A 2017 book, Indefensible Seven Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade, cited research from three academic institutions indicating that state investment for each job in the defence sector could create between three and seven similarly remunerated jobs in more productive sectors, such as renewable energy, technology, and education.

      “Even if the government tried to spin that yarn that this would be good for the Canadian economy in some way, I'm afraid  that the basis for that contention is built on quicksand,” Feinstein said.

      Despite this, U.S. president Donald Trump has become a champion of military spending and in September, the U.S. Senate approved a $700-billion defence-policy bill. Feinstein noted that the U.S. spends more on this sector than the next five highest-spending countries put together.

      Prior to the election, Trump sometimes voiced concerns about U.S. military adventures in other countries. And according to Feinstein, the defence establishment's favoured candidate was Hillary Clinton.

      Feinstein maintained that she had an "extremely hawkish persona" as secretary of state. "She has been opposed to diplomatic and peace efforts in many places where people think it's warranted."

      But Feinstein also credited her as being intelligent and fairly rational, even though he disagreed with her approach to national security.

      He argued that Trump, on the other hand, lacks these qualities, "which makes him particularly dangerous".

      "His statements around North Korea have been truly frightening," Feinstein said. "I was in South Korea recently and peace activists were saying to me they find themselves caught between two madmen, both of whom are saying pretty much the same thing: they want to destroy the other with weapons, which means we will all be destroyed."

      Trump is also calling on NATO allies to devote two percent of their gross domestic product to defence spending.

      "That is a completely meaningless figure," Feinstein said, "because two percent of GDP is starkly different to different countries of the NATO alliance. Some of them already spend more than that. Some of them spend less than that but already spend too much on defence.

      "Unless one is clear on what one is spending the money on and what it is going towards, it's a completely nonsensical approach to the trade," he added.

      Lockheed Martin's F-35 has been a source of controversy in many countries, including Canada.

      F-35 earns scorching condemnation

      As an example, Feinstein brought up the F-35 fighter jets. He said these aircraft are costing U.S. taxpayers $1.5 trillion.

      He alleged that these planes have "very little, if any, applicability to any conflict the U.S. will be engaged currently or for generations to come".

      "It's the ultimate arms-trade white turkey."

      Yet Feinstein noted that Trump supports these expenditures and "pretty much anything else" the defence industry wants to produce.

      The F-35 has been a potent political issue in Canada, too.

      The previous Conservative government claimed that 65 of these planes would cost $16 billion to buy and operate over 20 years.

      Auditor General Michael Ferguson, on the other hand, put the price at $25 billion. A Canadian company, Hawker Beechcraft, is a partner of the U.S. manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

      A former director of Hawker Beechcraft, Nigel Wright, was hired as Stephen Harper's chief of staff. When Wright was at Onex Corp., which owns Hawker Beechcraft, he was reportedly the key executive dealing with the airplane industry.

      The federal Liberals promised before the election not to buy the F-35 fighter jets. Instead, they pledged to replace CF-18 planes through an open and transparent competition.

      But that's still not the end of the story.

      This summer, Lockheed Martin offered to sell the F-35 to the Canadian government as an "interim" fighter plane in lieu of aircraft being purchased from Boeing, according to Ottawa Citizen journalist David Pugliese. 

      Boeing is in a fight with the Canadian government over subsidies to its chief North American rival, Montreal-based Bombardier.

      When Feinstein was asked if Canada should purchase F-35 fighter jets, he responded by saying he recently shared a public platform in the Netherlands with a former cabinet minister. This man said he tried for 14 years without success to determine how the F-35 would make his country safer.

      "We need to bear in mind not only that it is obscenely overpriced," Feinstein added. "It failed 13 or 14 test flights."

      Then he described the F-35 as "a poster child for everything that is wrong with the global trade in weapons".

      According to Feinstein, the plane's high cost siphons money away from other things that the military might require to make a country safe.

      "If you have, like I do, a broader issue sense of national security and you believe that a significant threat to our ongoing security are issues of climate change, issues of economic inequality, injustice, and poverty, then there are a myriad of different ways in which the money could be better spent," he stated. "So I think for Canada to even consider the F-35 is an absurdity."

      Andrew Feinstein will deliver the Wall Exchange lecture, which is sponsored by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, at the Vogue Theatre at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (November 7). For more information, visit