In the mid-nineties, Patrick Alley and a couple of friends got together in a draughty flat in Lancaster Gate, London, and hatched a plan to take down the Khmer Rouge.
They had no money, no connections and zero experience of doing battle with brutal, jungle-based guerrilla armies. But they were fascinated by the delicate political situation in Cambodia and passionate about stopping the violent communist cadres of the Khmer Rouge from taking back control of the country.
Travelling to Cambodia and posing as traders, they soon discovered that the Thai government had been funding the Khmer Rouge via the illegal timber trade.
This exposé by three daring Brits would eventually lead to the demise of that corrupt relationship and the restoration of peace in Cambodia. Alley and his cohorts were inspired to continue their investigative work in other corners of the world.
And so Global Witness was born: an organisation that examines the intersection between war, corruption, government, human rights abuse and environmental crime.
Over the past three decades, Alley has helped expose the shadow network of dodgy politicians, arms traders, blood diamond peddlers and arms dealers that keep the wheels of war and corruption turning across the globe. Not to mention the seemingly respectable lawyers, real-estate agents, PR firms and accountants in London and New York that help facilitate and legitimise this global community of super-villains.
His new book, Very Bad People, reads like a John le Carré novel but is, in fact, the very real story of his adventures in this thrilling and terrifying world.
THE BIG ISSUE: Does all corruption start at government level?
PATRICK ALLEY: Often it’s senior officials or even heads of state who are being bribed – sometimes by criminals, sometimes by apparently legitimate businesses. They might want to chop down a rainforest or drill for oil or get a mining concession, and they are willing to pay large sums of cash to senior political figures to get the go-ahead. So the politician’s responsibility is then towards the people who are paying them, not to the citizens who they should be representing.
But then they get paranoid because they want to protect both their money and their power. So they become increasingly autocratic. And you end up with these resource-rich countries – which should, on paper, be wealthy – mired in poverty with oppressive regimes and huge amounts of conflict. And corruption is what holds all of that together. That’s the nexus that Global Witness has always been interested in exposing.
Can that sort of thing happen in a western democracy?
Very often people think corruption is the thing that happens over there in those tropical places. But it’s a globalised industry, because who pays the bribes? Yes, western corporations. Where does the money go? Well, every corrupt deal needs a bank. So, the money flows through HSBC or Barclays or whatever it might be. And it ends up in the City of London.
That is where the super corrupt wish to launder their money so they can spend it. There’s no point in being super rich if you can’t have a really nice house in Belgravia. So, the west is as complicit as whoever it is that’s taking the bribe.
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Why has London become such a popular place for this sort of dodgy money to land?
I would go as far as to say that it’s kind of been a soft policy for a long time. The decline of the empire and the selling off of the manufacturing industries meant that the UK economy became very dependent on the financial services sector. And leaving the EU makes us even more vulnerable to the allure of corrupt money landing in our banks.
One of the ways to get money into our economic system is to make it easy for whoever wants to put the money into that system. And very often, that means allowing people to hide the identity of their companies and hide the identity of the owners of their companies. We want people to buy our property, especially our high-end property. So we make it easy.
[Global Witness] exposed the fact that, when buying a massively expensive property in the UK, the seller has to provide bona fide credentials but the buyer does not. In other words, as long as you have the cash we will accept it into our economy, no questions asked.
Is that why so many oligarchs choose to live here?
Well, that and our golden visas policy which means that if you can prove that you are rich enough, you automatically get approved to live in the UK. And on top of all of that, the UK is a uniquely unfriendly place if you’re an activist, or an investigative journalist exposing this kind of corruption, because we have the most expensive and strict libel environment on the planet.
Global Witness spend a huge amount on lawyers. And then you’ve got the PR outfits who launder people’s reputations. People like Abramovich have billions of pounds and huge teams of well-paid people around them to prevent bad stories coming out about them. So if you want to try and tell those stories then you have to be very, very emotionally tough because they can crush you, even if you’re right.
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It has taken the war in Ukraine to motivate our government to clamp down on dirty money. Do you feel cynical about that?
Yeah, I am cynical about it. I think that it was a crime that it took the biggest war in Europe since World War 2 to get them to do that, because they could have done it before.
And I’ll give you an example. Boris Johnson, a couple of weeks ago, said that there should be no safe havens in Britain for Putin’s oligarchs. But Britain actually is the safe haven for people who want to bring corrupt money with them. Including Putin’s oligarchs.
We did an investigation that discovered the former head of the Kazakhstan secret police owned a bunch of properties worth about £150 million in Baker Street plus several mansions in Hampstead and Highgate. He was the son of the president of Kazakhstan. It was clear that the money had not been made in a pleasant way. We reported it to David Cameron’s advisers in 2015 and he pledged to introduce legislation to block that kind of money being allowed into the UK. But then Brexit happened, Cameron resigned, and we lost our political champion. But the government knew about our investigation and haven’t acted upon it until this war finally forced their hand.
Are the current sanctions against Russia enough?
I think the current sanctions are good. They’re definitely making life harder for the Russians. But I think the thing that could really stop this war is sanctioning their hydrocarbons. I think it’s something like 56 per cent of Russia’s export earnings are hydrocarbons. If you sanction that, then you are really dealing a crippling financial blow. And Russia needs to find somewhere else to sell it.
If they can’t sell their oil and coal to the west they might try selling it to China but they don’t have the infrastructure to send it there. It would take them 15 years to build new pipelines. So I think banning Russian hydrocarbons in the west would be the single most important thing right now to help bring an end to that war.
But we already have an energy crisis. Can we afford to cut off one of our biggest sources of oil and gas?
This is where we are now. Dependent on energy from a country that has launched an illegal war. We cannot have energy security if we’re dependent on fossil fuels from dictatorships. And of course, most fossil fuels around the world come from autocratic regimes like Saudi, Venezuela or Russia. So we have to conclude that we just can’t rely on fossil fuels for our energy any more. Not just for environmental reasons but economic and political reasons too. So, I think cutting off Russian energy would be a really good place to start.
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