New Internationalist

Lethal Lies: the Arms Trade

November 1994

The murky world of the arms trade escapes public scrutiny most of the time. Vanessa Baird visits Somalia, where its bloody consequences are all too apparent, and asks what can be done in a world awash with weapons.

‘I don’t know anything about it,’ says Mariam with a big, knowing smile. ‘I want to live a long life,’ she adds, with an even bigger smile.

We are in Hodur, a dusty little Somali town close to the Ethiopian border. A camel ambles past the open door. Beyond the camel stand shelled husks of buildings set against a vast flat landscape of shrub and sand.

I’ve heard that this is a gunrunning town, with a good market for AK47s and the like. There is supposed to be an embargo on arms to Somalia but the weapons are pouring in all the same – from Ethiopia, from Sudan, from Egypt, from Kenya, from Italy.

Virtually every household has a gun. Civil society has disintegrated into clan warfare. Government infrastructure has collapsed and the United Nations is trying – and mainly failing – to keep order. Fighting can flare up at any place, at any time. The guns come out of the houses and all hell is let loose.

But Mariam does not want to talk about this. She wants to talk about nutrition. She is here running a UNICEF mother-and-child health post. People in this region suffered greatly during the height of the civil-war-created famine that claimed 300,000 lives two years ago. The skeletal images from Baidoa that haunted our television screens in 1992 would have come from Hodur had the TV crews got as far as this place.

There is still malnutrition today – about 20 per cent of children are affected – and a feeding centre continues to operate.

But the situation is vastly improved. The problem now is trying to find ways of generating income apart from gun-trading. What do the women who come to the health centre have to say about the fighting?

‘They don’t talk about it,’ says Mariam firmly. ‘They are concerned with the health of the children. With making sure they get enough to eat.’

The missing link
Mariam’s attitude is altogether understandable. She is firmly focused on her immediate objective. And besides, too much talk can cost you your life in this place.

But she is not the only person unwilling to discuss the trade in weapons. Before coming to Somalia I had conversations with some high-ranking United Nations officials in Nairobi. They were quite happy to talk about the conflict in Somalia, to condemn militarism and the damage done by the ‘men with guns’.

But on the subject of how and from whom those men with guns got those arms, they shut up or went off the record.

Why? There are many complex reasons – and one very simple one. The countries that are the most powerful in the UN are those which have permanent seats on the Security Council. These are the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – the Big Five. They also happen to be the world’s biggest suppliers of arms – accounting for 86 per cent of sales to the developing world. During his 21-year rule – which ended in 1991 – Somali dictator Siad Barre built up a huge arsenal of arms, supplied first by the former USSR, then by the US. From 1980 to 1990 nearly three-quarters of his arms came from the US. During this time Somalia was spending five times as much on the military as on health and education put together – the highest ratio in the world.1

I’m thinking about this deadly legacy while standing on the tarmac of Mogadishu airport, having flown to the capital city of Somalia from Hodur a few hours earlier. The runway is surrounded by barbed wire and UN armoured vehicles. Fighting between the clans of the two main opposing warlords in Mogadishu – General Aideed and Ali Mahdi – has got so bad during the past few days that I can’t get security clearance to enter the city. Most of the development agencies still here have moved their operations onto the airport tarmac.

I’m watching an aircraft being loaded up with UN emergency relief supplies. Unused in Somalia, they are being redirected to Rwandan refugees in Goma, Zaire. The news coverage of that crisis has so far focused on ‘tribal’ conflict – with the connotations of the ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilized’ that accompany that word.

Little has been said about the fact that while the former Hutu government of Rwanda was conducting its genocidal campaign against Tutsis and other political opponents, ‘civilized’ countries like France and South Africa were busy supplying the murdering regime with military equipment.2

The arms trade has never been ethical. But the pressures on suppliers to sell are greater today than ever. There are too many of them chasing a shrinking post-Cold War market in a world that may seem conflict-ridden to the normal person, but is not nearly conflict-rich enough for the trade. Embargoes are vigorously circumvented whenever and wherever possible.

There are two main reasons for this state of affairs. One is the cascade of surplus arms that NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries have unleashed on the world as a result of the scaling-down of their own militaries at the end of the Cold War.

The other reason is that military spending cuts in the North have caused a fall in domestic demand. The most usual response to this from arms manufacturers has not been to diversify and make something else, but a frantic export drive – the targets being the world’s trouble spots.

The arms trade cannot be blamed for starting the conflicts in Bosnia or Angola or Sudan or Burma or Turkey. But it is certainly playing a major role in prolonging these conflicts, in shattering hopes of democracy and replacing them with the rule of the gun and armed madness.

[image, unknown]

Ambushing development
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Somalia. From Mogadishu I fly down to the southern port of Kismayo. It’s only 14 kilometres from the airport to the town but the stretch of road that links the two is reckoned to be too dangerous to travel. The only way in is to get a helicopter from the airport to the seaport and from there take a military escort into town.

The military escort is incredible. It consists of a convoy of three ‘technicals’ – jeeps fitted with machine guns, an army truck and about 15 jittery Indian soldiers. They have reason to be nervous – two of their colleagues were killed recently by a Somali militia.
At the UNICEF residence, Baba, the Nigerian aid worker in charge, explains that he and his colleagues have to be accompanied by the convoy whenever they set foot out of their compound. Aid workers are targets in Somalia – UNICEF has lost 11 staff so far. Agencies hire vehicles which come complete with armed militiamen for protection.

It’s hard to see how any development work can be done under conditions where visiting a project becomes a major military exercise. Aid workers feel frustrated. The temptation to ignore the security procedures is great.

On 2 January 1992, one of Baba’s predecessors, Sean Devereux, did not take the convoy. He set out to walk the 20 minutes home from the office. He was shot and killed by a local militiaman. The outspoken British aid worker had recently gone on Radio Mogadishu and talked about clan control, about militias and about the part played by the arms trade.

Devereux had worked in Liberia prior to coming to Somalia and had come to the conclusion that the single biggest obstacle to development was the arms trade. He also became aware of the secrecy, silence and hypocrisy that surrounds the trade and was determined not to keep quiet about it.

For your own good
His anger and frustration – though not necessarily his courage – are shared by many. And yet those governments most heavily implicated in the buying and selling of arms can carry on doing so with precious little scrutiny or criticism.

The governments and military élites of poor countries that spend outrageous sums on weapons tell their populations that the weapons are necessary for security reasons. In most cases, though, the security they are providing is for themselves, for their own power base, at the expense of their people.

Take the case of Pakistan. In 1992 the Government ordered 40 Mirage 2000E fighters and three Tripartite aircraft from France. The cost of that one deal could have provided safe water for two years for all the 55 million people who lack it, family planning services for the estimated 20 million couples, essential medicines for the nearly 13 million people without access to health care and basic education for the 12 million children not in primary school.1

People in many Third World countries have no idea just how profligate their governments and military élites have been. But the truth may yet emerge. For the past three years the IMF has started collecting data on the military debts of developing countries, some of which look set to exceed their developmental debts.

The governments of countries that are major suppliers of arms also tell their people that the arms trade is good for them. During the Cold War the argument was that we needed ever-more sophisticated weapons to protect us from the ‘enemy’. The military industrial-complex was cast in the West as the profitable ‘booster rocket’ of capitalism. For this reason industrializing countries like Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia were keen to get in on the act.

But today the most powerful argument for maintaining a defence industry in the North is employment – or rather the prospect of massive unemployment if it goes. It is estimated that of the 14 million defence-industry jobs in the world today, four million will have been lost by 1998.1

It may seem paradoxical, but evidence is mounting that the arms trade actually creates unemployment. To see how this works you need to look at the larger picture and the longer term. The arms trade does not make economic sense – it is not and never has been genuinely profitable. It is capital-intensive – and its products often sell for less than they actually cost to produce. Defence manufacture is not even particularly labour-intensive. But during the Cold War it was hugely subsidized by the public via over-priced defence-ministry contracts. If the public money that was sunk into the arms industry had gone into a host of smaller, more flexible high-tech enterprises it would have created more wealth and more employment.3

Today it is no longer possible to justify such huge public spending on defence. Instead all sorts of hidden subsidies are used to keep defence manufacturers afloat. In the UK an entire government department – The Defence Export Services Organization – is geared solely to promoting arms sales. Western governments have also been keen to underwrite loans and ‘export credits’ to potential buyers of weapons with the effect that taxpayers in the selling country are actually footing the bill for up to a third of all weapons sold.4

You are not likely to know about this – because the arms trade is shrouded in government secrecy. No other business is so officially protected from public scrutiny. The excuse is ‘national security interests’. This calls to mind the child abuser who invokes family unity to establish the abuse as ‘our secret’ and obtain collusion.

We have all been abused by the arms trade, in one way or another. From the unemployed worker in Detroit to the skinny, withdrawn child in Baidoa taking part in a programme for war-traumatized children.

Women like Fatima Jibrell tackle the consequences in war-torn Somalia.
PHOTO BY VANESSA BAIRD

A civil society
So what can be done in this world battered into a military mould? What can we do to disarm our societies both physically and psychologically? In Somalia the opportunity for literally taking the guns away from the militias has passed. But there is another, perhaps more durable way. The seemingly insatiable demand for arms can only be lessened by creating a civil society based on peaceful, democratic forms of organization. Somalia has local teachers, health workers and others committed to this. Fatima Jibrell, for example, has returned from exile in the US and is trying to set up women’s projects with this in mind. She shows me a text that Somali women took to a conference in Addis Ababa in March 1993. It begins:

‘We Somali women have followed behind our men in the wake of the devastation and destruction of our homeland. Now it is time we leave our role as followers and become leaders of our people into peace.’

Transforming a military culture and economy into a civil one is a task for all of us in this post-Cold War era. There was a golden opportunity to do so. Cuts in military spending from 1987-94 produced a global peace dividend of $935 billion – $810 billion of this in industrial nations. Where has it gone? The simple shocking answer is: it disappeared, no-one knows exactly where. According to a United Nations Development Programme report: ‘Most savings appear to have been spent on reducing budget deficits, rather than on development or on environmental improvements.’1

The text goes on to say: ‘It is frustrating that – just as social and human agendas were pushed aside at a time of rising military budgets, they continue to be neglected even when military budgets are being reduced.’ Not just ‘frustrating’, it’s outrageous that governments have used this money to conceal their own economic incompetence.

A future peace dividend of $460 billion is anticipated for 1995-2000. Is the UN going to sit back and let governments squander this too? Or is it going to agree systems to keep track of this money so that it becomes an accountable item in national budgets? The UN could do much in this area. It could take up the proposal of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias to set up a global demilitarization fund, large chunks of which would be spent on converting from military to non-military production and retraining demobilized soldiers.

Today the UN finds itself with the role of peacekeeper in many areas of conflict around the world. It is reaping the harvest of decades of military build-up and arms trading. Would it not make sense to tackle the problem at an earlier stage? Some tentative steps are being taken. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali has introduced a voluntary Conventional Arms Control Register which could lead to greater openness and accountability. But it is only voluntary and several countries have refused to comply. The UN also seems poised to ban the trade in certain arms, such as landmines. And there is talk of taxing arms transfers.

But while arms sales are the norm it is easy for traders to get round obstacles, such as bans on particular weapons or embargoes against certain countries. What if, however, there were a global ban on all arms sales which was lifted only in exceptional cases? People facing genocide at the hands of well-armed aggressors – the Kurds for example, or the Bosnian Muslims – might constitute ‘an exceptional case’.

The main pressure the UN will have to exert in the next few years will be on its most powerful members: the main arms-selling countries, the Big Five. ‘Bloody warlords,’ said one angry Somali health worker referring to those men whose struggle for power has brought the country to its knees. ‘Nobody wants them.’ Indeed. But ‘warlords’ come in all shapes, sizes and guises. Those people in the corridors of political or corporate power who are easing the bloodiest trade in the world could be described as ‘warlords’ of a kind. And we don’t want them either. The lies, secrets and silences that surround and protect their activities are not only immoral, abusive and undemocratic. They are lethal.

1 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1994.
2 Human Rights Watch, US 1994.
3 Trust for Research and Education on the Arms Trade, London 1994. See also the work of Mary Kaldor and Seymour Elman.
4 World Development Movement, London 1994.


This special report appeared in the the arms trade: lethal lies issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

Comments on Lethal Lies: the Arms Trade

Leave your comment