New Internationalist

A Tawdry Trade

Issue 330

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Globocops / NUCLEAR WEAPONS

A tawdry trade

Gideon Burrows argues that the price of arms is so
high we'd be better off not trading them at all.

[image, unknown]

When the notorious heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson applied for permission to fight in Scotland his promoter, Frank Warren, defended the convicted rapist by saying: 'It's not as if he's an arms dealer.'

The arms business does not have the best of names. Repression in Indonesia and East Timor, escalating tension in Zimbabwe and the Congo, the continued brutal occupation of Tibet by China, the relentless abuses of civil and human rights in Saudi Arabia, the tightening of the military fist around Malaysia - all these heighten concern about the sale of weapons, especially small arms.

The classic response from the arms business is that, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, countries have a right to defend themselves against armed attack. So, logically, they must also have the right to purchase arms. But from whom?

The world arms market is all but sewn up by a handful of giants: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and European Aeronautic Defence Systems (EADS). They roam the globe sourcing arms contracts through countries where subsidies are highest and export license requirements are minimal.

As the arms business globalizes, loopholes emerge. Companies can avoid stringent rules by licensing the production of weapons elsewhere. Landrover licenses the use of its components to build Otokar Scorpion armoured vehicles in Turkey - hardly a responsible user of weapons itself - and in 1995 Otokar sold Scorpion armoured vehicles to Pakistan and Algeria as well.1

Dealers can 'broker', or organize the transfer of small arms between foreign states without having to seek permission from their own countries. In this way stockpiles of guns, still in circulation after the Second World War and the Cold War, have ended up in the hands of militias and children in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Girl with bicycle and Kalashnikov in Cambodia.
Gary Trotter / Still Pictures

The arms business also receives huge government subsidies - a government paper estimated that the British industry receives a subsidy of nearly $600 million a year.2 Such subsidies are exempt from the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that apply to every other international trade. Article XXI of the main WTO governing document states that a country can take any action it considers necessary 'for the protection of its essential security interests relating to the traffic in arms, ammunition and implements of war'. Arms companies are therefore double winners from the rapid liberalization of trade advocated by the WTO, profiting as well from the elimination of environmental, health and labour standards. No surprise, then, that Boeing and Allied Signal/Honeywell were both $250,000 'Emerald' sponsors of the WTO meeting in Seattle last year.3

A Canadian Government programme of subsidies for the military and civilian aerospace industries was ruled illegal by the WTO, so it was restructured to cover only military equipment and duly went through. 'Offset' deals - which allow Saudi Arabia to pay for huge arms purchases in oil and South Africa to accept investment in its industries as part-payment for arms - would be illegal under WTO rules if the purchases were for civilian equipment.

Along with the growth in concern about the arms trade have come the inevitable promises to clean it up. The Wassenar Arrangement of 1995 promotes 'transparency' and 'responsibility' for transfers of conventional arms among its 33 members, including the US, Russia, Australia and much of Europe. The European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, adopted in June 1998, sets out criteria to assess whether or not European countries should export arms, including respect for arms embargoes and human rights.

The 'illicit' arms trade could not exist without the 'legitimate' trade. Most illegal weapons were once transferred legally.

Governments have also made commitments to tackle the illicit trade in arms, mainly the black market in Africa and Asia, but also in Eastern Europe, including former Yugoslavia. In mid-2001 there is to be a UN Conference on the illicit trade in small arms which will further attempt to prevent proliferation.

But neither the Wassenar Arrangement nor the European Code of Conduct have prevented the use of American and European weapons in East Timor by vicious Indonesian militias. Zimbabwe received arms from Western states despite violent political strife and external involvement in the brutal Congo conflict. Kurds in Turkey are still systematically repressed by an army that uses weapons supplied by the US, Canada and Europe.

The fact is that the illicit arms trade could not exist without the legitimate trade. Most illegal weapons were once transferred legally. The West Side Boys in Sierra Leone used Western weapons to kidnap British soldiers and defended their camp with armed Landrover jeeps originally supplied to the Sierra Leone Government by Britain.4

The 'clean up' simply hasn't worked - other than for arms companies that make great play of being ethical because they don't break the law.

Suits on armour at a British fair.
Carlos Guarita / Still Pictures

So what is the point of the international arms trade? The Cold War is over. The global demand for weapons is much reduced. The US spends almost all its $75-80 billion budget for weapons procurement, research and development with its own companies. A commission of enquiry report in June found that no government organization had been able to prove conclusively that France's hefty arms exports were beneficial, adding: 'It is by no means certain these sales earn money.'5

The British Defence Manufacturers Association values British 'defence exports' at around $10 billion a year - not much more than 0.5 per cent of national income. The number of workers employed in the arms-export business in Britain is 130,000 - a fraction of, say, the 1.5 million unemployed people who find new jobs or training every year. Besides, engineers in the arms business are some of the most skilled, and therefore most employable, people in the world.6

So why not abolish the international arms trade altogether? Anyone advocating this is, of course, likely to be charged with failing to live in the real world.

But it is in the real world that police suppress peaceful protest in Indonesia or China; thousands of square kilometres of land are laid waste by landmines in Cambodia; hungry South African children are educated in tiny tin shacks because the Government is spending $4.6 billion on new weapons packages7; child soldiers in Sierra Leone wield machine guns; three million Kurdish people are exiled by the Turkish military.

In the real world, the price of the arms trade is just too high.

[image, unknown] is news editor of Red Pepper and a former joint co-ordinator of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, as well as a writer on peace, disarmament, political and environmental issues. gideonburrows@hotmail.com

1 The Independent, 1 October 1999 and evidence taken before the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee, 10 November 1998.
2 Financial Times, 22 June 2000.
3 The WTO and the Globalization of the Arms Industry (World Policy Institute, 1999).
4 The Times, 9 September 2000.
5 Janes Defence Weekly, 10 May 2000.
6 The Financial Times, 22 June 2000.
7 Janes Defence Weekly, 23 August 2000.


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