An angry, funny expose of the arms trade


As Used on the Famous Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade

By Mark Thomas

Ebury Press, 2006

339 pages, $35 (pb)

Mark Thomas loves a good sting. A British stand-up comic and campaigner against the arms trade, Thomas posed as a British arms dealer and planned a successful circumvention of a UN embargo on arms sales to Zimbabwe, arranging for the delivery of some submachine guns from their German parts manufacturer to their Swiss assembler, courtesy of a Finnish gun-runner. The smuggling, before Thomas exposed the sting, was no more sophisticated than simply changing the labels on the packing crates.

As Used on the Famous Mandela is Thomas's angrily funny expose of the arms and torture trade, and the ease with which arms manufacturers get their horrid, but highly profitable, devices to dictators, warlords and criminals, exposing the pretensions of the politicians who are supposed to see that they don't.

One sting involved Thomas posing as a defence industry PR adviser at an international arms fair in Athens where he reeled in a major general from Indonesia — the "dream nexus of human rights abuse, dictatorships, mass murder and the British arms industry" — whose senior braid was so impressed by Thomas's advice on how to counter Amnesty International that Thomas found himself touting his services to the defence attache at the Indonesian Embassy.

Thomas manouevred his new clients into admitting on hidden video that, yes, sometimes torture happens, that people get killed in West Papua for raising an independence flag, that regime critics "disappear", and that British weapons (fighter jets, armoured personnel carriers, tanks, water cannon) are involved (despite official British denials).

Britain, says Thomas, exports up to US$5 billion of military hardware a year, in the stellar company of heavyweight arms-pushers like the US, Russia and France, adding to the bloody panorama of "trade unionists butchered by paramilitaries in Colombia, fleeing civilians caught in the Congo, democracy protestors killed in West Papua, burnt villages and piles of corpses in Darfur".

There are two reactions to all this — "We have to stop this madness" or "Fuck me, that is some business for the gun companies — buy shares!" West subscribes to the former, and prime among the British corporations of death he targets is BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace), whose shares Thomas is determined to devalue, unlike the British government which actively promotes their murderous icon of British industry.

The New Labour government of Prime Minister, Tony Blair, says Thomas, are "pimps for the British arms companies", subsidising the British arms industry with A$2.2 billion of public money a year, and also underwriting the private sector's arms sales so any payment defaults are picked up by the public.

With Labour's 1997 routing of the dreadful Tories, Thomas was not the only one in whom hope appeared, hope that Labour really meant to inject "an ethical dimension" into foreign policy — "no matter what New Labour did, they couldn't possibly be as shite as the last lot". Thomas knew he should have known better. History said so. The fine print said so, with "the prosperity of British industry" and "national security" the trump cards, as usual.

Blair's former minister for international development, Clare Short, confirmed it, saying that every minister who makes a foreign trip has a briefing from the prime minister's office to talk up arms deals. When India and Pakistan, two nuclear armed states, went to the brink of war in 2002, half of New Labour's cabinet, including Blair, "with all the moral dignity of loan sharks waiting outside a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting", jetted to India to lobby that country to buy a billion pounds worth of Hawk fighter jets from BAE Systems.

Leg-irons ("the same type used on the famous Mr Mandela", as one advertisement boasted), handcuffs, electro-shock stun batons and other tools of the torture trade also have "Made in England" stamped on them, or their trade (in theory illegal in Britain) is brokered on British soil, as demonstrated by an audacious group of convent school girls and a nun in Ireland, posing, Thomas-like, as arms dealers.

As Thomas sums up the rules for an aspiring arms trader, you will need a contact list of people who want guns (any Amnesty International human rights report will do to find the embassies you need to see), a logical mind (to find the best way to work the loopholes), "commission agents" through which to pay bribes, "a vault in Switzerland to store a truckload of sensitive documents just beyond the legal reach of the UK", and some ability with paperwork (though not too taxing since the crucial document, the End User Certificate from the buying country promising to behave responsibly, "requires fewer bits of paper than you need to make a competent marijuana joint").

Thomas's job is to cause embarrassment and discomfort to British arms dealers and their highly solicitous government. With the mischievousness of Michael Moore and the articulate passion of John Pilger, Thomas is a comic for whom arms trading is no joke.

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