On Wednesday 7th May, Sir Roger Carr, the new Chair of BAE Systems, hosted his first annual general meeting (AGM). A large number of anti arms trade activists with proxy-shares were there to give him a welcome to remember.
There are few companies with as much to be ashamed of as BAE Systems. The company, which is the biggest arms dealer in Europe, has a long history of corruption, white washing and arms sales to tyrants. It is unquestionably one of the worst corporate citizens in the world.
As you can imagine, its AGM, hosted in a sterile and remote airbase outside Farnborough, was a surreal experience. We knew it would be bad, but what we got was a long and often nauseating lesson in evasion, denial and downright fabrication.
Proceedings began with a barrage of corporate videos, followed by an unusual and almost Orwellian speech from Carr, in which he claimed that, despite all of the evidence on the contrary, BAE works 'for peace at home and abroad.' His claim was rightfully met with a mixture of shock, disbelief and derision from the floor.
You could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps he had misspoke, but it was a point he returned to throughout the subsequent questions from activists and shareholders.
Questions focused on BAE's relationships with authoritarian regimes, including those in Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia. There was particular focus on Saudi Arabia, the largest customer for UK weaponry, where BAE has sold fighter jets, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, Tactica armoured personnel vehicles and missiles. BAE manufactured the armoured vehicle that were used by Saudi Arabia to support repression of peaceful protest in Bahrain.
Sir Roger (who went as far as correcting one questioner who had 'demoted' him by merely referring to him as Mr Carr) said that he had thought a lot about the company's relationship with the brutal Saudi regime before accepting his new role. One questioner said that she was shocked that he could have thought about the relationship and still taken the job. She pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been condemned by Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the Economist Intelligence Unit, which listed it as the fifth most authoritarian regime in the world.
Carr justified arms sales to the regime on the basis that he believes Saudi Arabia to be a "country in transition" and a "critical ally in defence terms, critical to world peace from our perspective". While it may be true that there has been some limited degree of progress in some areas of Saudi society, there has also been an escalation of the crackdown against political opponents. Only last month the government passed a new 'terrorism' law that treats all atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state.
One point that Carr kept returning to is the fact that he is not a politician and that it is not his job to make judgments about what countries are allies. Even if we ignore the fact that the BAE puts considerable time, money and resources into lobbying politicians at home and abroad, it is very hard to see it as a dispassionate bystander in global conflict rather than a company that actively fuels and profits from it.
Time and again Carr stressed that BAE's allies are the UK government's allies and that BAE only sells weapons to countries approved by the UK under the existing arms export legislation. This may be the case, but that doesn't mean that arms companies can simply absolve themselves of any responsibility for the consequences when they arm human rights abusers. By choosing to sell weapons to oppressive regimes BAE is strengthening and endorsing them.
Where Carr is right is that BAE is only able to arm and bolster these regimes due to a combination of support from the government and a lack of any meaningful arms controls. On that point, Carr said he was supportive of the Arms Trade Treaty, which should make its supporters question how strong it really is. If an arms trade treaty has the support of the biggest arms exporting nations in the world, and some of the biggest arms companies, then surely that is a sign of its weakness. If the UK is serious about ending the arms trade, with its dire consequences for peace and human rights, then it should immediately stop promoting arms exports and allowing companies like BAE to profit from repression and violence.
Upon leaving the meeting and re-entering the real world we were treated to a sub-standard packed lunch and a shuttle bus back to the train station. What is clear is that Carr and the rest of the board has bought into their own propaganda and a dystopian world-view in which strengthening tyrants is a way to bring peace and stability, and where the human consequences of war have nothing whatsoever to do with those who provide the weapons.