Arms deals are commonly shrouded in secrecy – justified by their sensitive nature, but also perfect for encouraging corruption.

The Danish press is cracking down on the defense department’s latest acquisition program, in which artillery platforms were acquired from Israeli firm Elbit Systems, in breach of every procedure of public spending, and of common sense.

A common malpractice

Bribery and corruption are so common in international armament sales, that German taxpayers and electors found out in 1999 that the payment of bribes was foreseen in the German tax code, and was to be written down as “useful payments”. And no country, no matter how driven against corruption it is, is safe from these practices.

During the 2012 Greek crisis, Guardian reporter Helena Smith wrote: “The murkiness has ensured that over the years the Greek arms trade has become increasingly associated with high-level bribery and corruption – the very practices abhorred by Berlin, Athens’ main provider of rescue funds.”

The Al-Yamamah arms deal, rife with allegations of corruption, was ongoing for over 20 years, from 1985 to 2006. Described as the largest British sale, ever, the weapons-for-oil agreement involved political pressure, dissimulation, bribery, and regulation breaches at every level. An inquiry into the details of the murky deal by the British fraud office was abruptly ended, under British and Saudi diplomatic pressure. The entire deal was negotiated out of view from the British public and Parliament.

In 2023, a Paris magistrate called upon the Indian for cooperation in an ongoing investigation regarding the sale of 36 Dassault Rafales, over suspicious payments. Although the investigations are pending and no charges have been brought, many allegations and points of doubt have come to light.

The Wire writes: “Days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France, the French news portal Mediapart has revealed that Paris magistrates have sent an official request to the Indian government seeking its cooperation with an ongoing investigation into payments allegedly made in India by Dassault Aviation as part of the 2015-16 deal for the sale of 36 Rafale fighter jets.

The list is long, if not endless. The secretive nature of arms deals and the high financial volumes are attractive to all sorts of shady dealings, from embezzlement to overpricing, and from arms ban breach to violations of international treaties. Corruption investigator Andrew Feinstein writes: “Arms deals are often concluded by politicians, military leaders, corporate executives, and dubious intermediaries, all of whom benefit materially and politically from the transactions. Corruption is rife and often ignored, leading to inappropriate military matériel being purchased for bribes rather than the security of the nation. The trade operates with virtual impunity behind a veil of national-security-imposed secrecy”.

Denmark in the whirlwind

Few could have seen such a matter blow up in Denmark: until 2022, Denmark was consistently at the top of the most corruption-free nations worldwide, beating Transparency International’s list five years in a row.

Denmark doesn’t export its press much, but the Danish press and population are closely following the matter: A batch of Atmos 2000 artillery platforms was recently ordered, from Israeli supplier Elbit Systems under the shadiest of conditions. The aim was to replace the fleet of Danish cannons, bought in 2015, which had been pledged to Ukraine.

The deal was concluded in a level of secrecy, which was unjustified for security reasons. Which types of artillery are used by any given nation is hardly a secret. And yet the deal was almost or fully, depending on the audience, kept secret from the Danish Parliament, from the public, and even from alternative suppliers, in blatant disregard for public procurement rules, which dictate consulting all offers on the market to guarantee the best buying conditions.

The deal was presented to Parliament under the guise of urgency, with the Defense Ministry claiming that the decision had to be made immediately to rush Parliament members into signing—a common commercial tactic. Altinget’s journalistic investigations ultimately revealed that the deadlines invoked were false.

And, as a last straw, no competitive process was involved. Not only were alternative suppliers not invited to submit their proposals, which could have obtained Denmark a better deal, but they were not even notified that the acquisition program existed. For context, India, Singapore, England, France, and the Czech Republic offer similarly designed platforms.

Official investigations are ongoing, but the Danish government has managed to arouse anger from the public, its Parliament, the international defense market and prosecutors, all at once.

The scandal has taken such proportions that Danish PM Mette Frederiksen had to reshuffle ministries to avoid a major political crisis. Despite these evasive maneuvers, both Parliament and the opposition formed a coalition to demand the opening of an official fraud investigation.

The pressure has been so high on involved officials that defense minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, either despite or because of his leadership in one of the three ruling parties and as vice-PM, has decided to retire entirely from political life after having been on sick leave for months.

Failed attempts at explaining away

Danish officials have devised various exculpatory statements and convenient pieces of evidence. But every time, the alleged witnesses denied the official narrative, and the scapegoats were not keen to take the fall for their ministerial superiors.

It was initially invoked that military personnel had failed to carry out their due diligence, which eventually led to the public image disaster, but the officers were eventually cleared of wrongdoing. The narrative then changed and supported the notion that other suppliers had been consulted, but had not wished to participate in the tender. Those suppliers denied having been notified of this deal.

Geopolitical expert Donald Carpenter reports that “In June, Altinget also reported that both Korean firm Hanwha and French firm Nexter had denied having received a request from Denmark to submit a tender for the rapid delivery of artillery. Several spokespersons say that they would not have approved the artillery purchase from Elbit if they had known that no offers had been obtained from other suppliers.

Elbit Systems is not in its first scandal. It has been accused, suspected, or found guilty of corruption and human rights breaches in Zambia, the United States, Australia, Denmark, and France. This company had already been at the center of a scuffle in 2015, in Denmark, when Elbit Systems had initially been chosen for these same howitzers, but ultimately lost the deal, due to political backlash. Elbit Systems is blacklisted from the Danish Pensions Fund’s investment list, due to its involvement and active participation in suspected war crimes and human rights breaches in Palestine, during operations led by the Israeli Defense Forces.

This argument had been the tipping point for the project, as the three parties in power (Social Democrats, Social Liberal, and Socialist People’s Party) had objected and broke the deal. Following this failure, it is believed Elbit may have launched litigation against the Danish State, and Altinget’s investigations indicate Elbit agreed to withdraw its legal charges from 2015 in exchange for the 2023 deal to be signed, as the same FMI (Danish procurement agency) director, Christian Brejner Ishøj, was in charge simultaneously of handling Elbit System’s litigation resolution and the acquisition of the new howitzers.

International relations specialist Katrine Falk Lonstrup writes: “The now-dropped lawsuit has threads going back to 2015. Here SF and the Radicals blocked the Defense purchasing artillery cannons from Elbit Systems, which several pension companies and banks blacklist because the Israeli arms manufacturer’s weapons are used by the Israeli army in Gaza and the West Bank.”  This aggravated the crisis as the Department of Defense acquired these artillery platforms from a supplier it knew, for having been told specifically a few years prior, that resorting to such a supplier could generate friction, or even set off a political crisis.

Rasmus Jarlov, spokesperson for the Danish Conservatives, stated: “I can’t believe that the rest of the members of the Finance Committee accept such a way of working, because it shows that they don’t take their work seriously. That they put up with such poor conditions that they don’t have time to read things and don’t have time to talk to anyone about it.”

This matter, which is fed almost on a weekly basis by leading investigative journal Altinget and followed closely by the public, is tarnishing Denmark’s reputation as a “clean country” durably. It is unclear whether Denmark will lose its spot on global corruption indexes, in the wake of this matter.

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