Andrew Feinstein exposes "the shadow world" of global arms

Buying and selling weapons is a huge, and highly secretive, business — for governments, aerospace and defence companies, and black market profiteers alike. Former South African politician and current U.K. corruption researcher Andrew Feinstein argues that the arms trade does not make us more secure. In fact, he contends that it fuels conflict, undermines economic progress and democracy, and — with its unintended consequences — endangers citizens everywhere.
A Russian-made multiple rocket launcher known as the TOS-1A fires during training at a military camp in Baghdad October 14, 2014 (Reuters)
Listen to the full episode53:59

**This episode originally aired January 29, 2018.

Buying and selling weapons is a huge, and highly secretive, business — for governments, aerospace and defence companies, and black market profiteers alike. In this UBC Wall Exchange talk from Vancouver, former South African politician and current U.K. corruption researcher Andrew Feinstein argues that the arms trade does not make us more secure. In fact, he contends that it fuels conflict, undermines economic progress and democracy, and — with its unintended consequences — endangers citizens everywhere.

Western-made weapons used against civilians in the war in Yemen. Guns meant to arm American-allied soldiers in Syria, used against those same soldiers. Armoured vehicles from Canada, used by Saudi security forces against their own citizens. It seems the ultimate route of weapons is never predictable, and that is just one of the troubling issues that author Andrew Feinstein raises in his exploration of the shadow world of global arms. 

Eisenhower's warning revisited

This hidden realm has, in fact, been visible for some time. More than 50 years ago in the U.S., an outgoing Republican president — and decorated army general — delivered a warning to his nation:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex...We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted." –  Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961


"The Shadow World" by Andrew Feinstein, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2011.
Andrew Feinstein is one of many who think Eisenhower's warning has gone unheeded, in America and elsewhere. He's devoted most of his professional life to researching the impact of the global arms trade on international democracy, and in a Wall Exchange talk delivered in Vancouver last November, he argued that the arms trade does not make the world less dangerous. In fact, he believes that its practices fuel conflict, undermine development, and make people around the world "far less safe."  

As director of the British non-governmental organization Corruption Watch U.K., Andrew Feinstein investigates the hidden realities of the "official" military-industrial complex of governments and arms manufacturers, and notes how frequently he sees it intersect with the world of illicit arms dealers. This "grey market" is wildly lucrative for all sides. Arms — and the commissions offered by their manufacturers — are big business in a world that spends 1.7 trillion dollars a year on defence and national security. But Andrew Feinstein believes the statistic that the weapons trade accounts for 40% of all corruption in global trade, via bribes, fraud, and racketeering. 

South African arms deal

Feinstein witnessed that corruption firsthand. He was a young ANC politician in post-apartheid South Africa in 1999. As chair of the financial oversight committee, Feinstein took issue with his government's $10 billion defence deal with European manufacturers — including some 20 jet fighters made by Saab in partnership with the U.K.'s BAE Systems. 

That purchase was decided by a small and secretive government group. Since South Africa hardly had major defence issues, this deal ignored the priorities of a citizenry whose major problems were unemployment, homelessness, and rampant illness and death from HIV/AIDS. Andrew Feinstein ultimately resigned, and left the country.

In a UBC Wall Exchange talk from Vancouver, former South African politician and current U.K. corruption researcher Andrew Feinstein argues that the arms trade does not make us more secure. In fact, he contends that it fuels conflict, undermines economic progress and democracy, and — with its unintended consequences — endangers citizens everywhere. 0:44


Money, power and danger

Andrew Feinstein (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Even if one believes in strong national defence, Andrew Feinstein points out that "spending gargantuan amounts of money on equipment we don't need means we spend less on what we do need." The promise of greater personal wealth — via commissions or jobs or business interests, such as in the infamous Al Yamamah arms deal — too often makes people in power decide against the best interests of their nations and the world, contends Feinstein. 

Finally, he points to the unintended consequences of the global weapons trade. When the U.S. funded and armed mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, they could not foresee that the group would comprise "the core elements in the formation of the Taliban and certain parts of the al-Qaeda network" — the latter notorious, of course, for the 9/11 attacks a decade later.

Despite the money and power structures in place, Andrew Feinstein asserts that citizens should pressure our governments for change in the global arms industry, an industry that is "undertaken in our names and with our tax dollars and an industry that counts its profits in billions and its costs in human lives."


Watch Andrew Feinstein's talk recorded at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia


Books and films mentioned in the talk:

  • The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2011.
  • After the Party: Corruption, the ANC, and South Africa's Uncertain Future by Andrew Feinstein, Verso, 2009.
  • The Arms Bazaar: From Lebanon to Lockheed by Anthony Sampson, Viking, 1977. Note: This book is out of print, but may be available at reference libraries
  • Shadow World (2016), an experimental documentary film by Belgian artist and filmmaker Johan Grimonprez, in collaboration with Andrew Feinstein.

Related websites: 

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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