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Eva Joly: Britain is destroying the anti-corruption struggle

When the UK tolerates corruption, it wrecks 10 years of good work

A British government delegation travelled to Amman last week for a major UN conference on fighting corruption. I, too, was at that meeting when news broke that the Blair government had abandoned the Serious Fraud Office's inquiry into BAE System's defence deals with Saudi Arabia.

For almost 20 years I have worked to stamp out bribery and corruption, but this scandalous decision has almost made me lose the will to continue. I wonder now how Britain dared to send a delegation to Amman. This illegal decision is a betrayal of the British people and every principle that Britain is committed to uphold.

Until the end of the previous century, payments to foreign governments to secure big defence and other contracts were not just widely tolerated, but were sometimes tax deductible. It was tempting, no doubt. Such contracts generate employment, trade and ease friendships with countries we want as allies.

But the international community came to understand that these harmful practices sustain bad governance. Slush funds operated by western companies have given dictators throughout Africa, Asia and South America access to secret cash to buy arms or thwart democratic opposition movements. Corruption is one of the biggest obstacles to democratic development and the fight against global poverty.

So it was a tremendous achievement in the late 1990s when OECD states agreed an anti-bribery convention. This led in 2003 to the UN Convention against Corruption which Britain ratified in the spring of this year.

What Tony Blair's government has done in the Saudi affair is a direct violation of Article 5 of the OECD convention. This states that no consideration should be taken of economic interests, political concerns or the effect on a government's relations with other states. It is mandatory: even when there are political consequences, you cannot tolerate corruption.

Nobody would be astonished to learn that Kenya had flouted its commitment to international anti-corruption rules. But when the UK - the home of the rule of law in the eyes of much of the world - arrogantly announces it will disregard the convention, then it is a bombshell that wrecks 10 years of good work.

Of course, the inquiry into dealings with the Saudis was always going to put unwelcome pressure on the UK. Britain is now in a comparable situation to that of France in 1996-97 when I investigated the oil giant Elf for kickbacks for contracts with Gabon and other West African states. As the investigating magistrate I was warned that my work ran contrary to "national security". The words used were oddly similar to the words Lord Goldsmith used announcing the end of the Saudi investigation last Thursday.

The difference, however, is that as a member of the French judiciary I was independent. Various interests warned me to back off, and for years I had to live with police protection. But because it is abnormal in a democracy to have a mechanism for interrupting an official fraud inquiry, I was able to get to the bottom of the scandal. Thirty people were eventually convicted for looting a total of €450m.

The misuse of power to block official inquiries is a common practice in developing countries, but in a democracy you have a separation of powers. Halting an inquiry like the Saudi one is a sign of democratic immaturity.

Even prior to this decision, the OECD had highlighted worries about the ambiguity of the role of Britain's Attorney General and his relationship with the Executive. Those of us who care about corruption in the world find it astonishing that this weakness in your system has now been exploited.

Shamefully, by foiling the SFO's attempts to access Swiss bank accounts the Government has denied the British people their right to learn exactly where alleged payments in the Saudi deals were going. I know from my experience in the Elf scandal money does not always go where the contractor tells you, and claiming that the national interest is at stake is often a mask to hide the embarrassing details of a corrupt money trail. Frequently, as I have found, percentages of bribes end up enriching individual officials and in the coffers of political parties. This is something Britain must reflect on.

The tragedy is that we in the West can ignore the consequences of kickbacks paid to foreign regimes. The money often ends up back in our western banks, or we gain access to cheaper oil and our factories get jobs. But in Angola, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria they can't live with it. It is destroying their states. The effect of stopping the Saudi inquiry is terrible for the brave prosecutors in these countries who risk their lives, and for professionals involved in anti-corruption worldwide. It is a terrible outcome for the Serious Fraud Office: how can they be motivated now if just when they are getting close to a target the Attorney General can say we will stop?

Stamping out corruption is a vital part of the effort to combat poverty, and is presumably why the UK's Department for International Development has funded a British police squad to help governments in impoverished countries to conduct inquiries into money laundering. As far as I can see, Tony Blair's decision has stabbed his own overseas aid wing in the back. What kind of credibility do they have now, when the countries they preach to about corruption know Britain officially tolerates it?

The writer is a special adviser to the Norwegian government on corruption and money laundering. Her book Justice Under Siege is published by Arcadia Books/Citizen Press on 12 January