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25 August 2015: Vol. 8, No. 2

Editorial: Death, shadows, and profits—a political economy of the international arms trade
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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“I am concerned about the gap that that subsists between the duty to ensure respect for international humanitarian law in arms transfers and the actual transfer practices of too many States,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president Peter Maurer in a video statement to the first Conference of States Parties (CSP1) of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ICRC, among others speaking during the opening day of the Conference, expressed dismay about the “appalling consequences” of the irresponsible, poorly regulated, and illicit trade in conventional weapons. “If States are to join the Treaty but continue to transfer arms to belligerents,” warned Maurer, “this would severely undermine the ATT’s humanitarian purpose and its credibility.”

The fact that ATT states parties and signatories continue to engage in arms transfers that result in human suffering highlights a critical gap between law and practice. El Salvador spoke of the violence plaguing Central America. Yemen highlighted the flow of arms to the Middle East, arguing that the conflict in Yemen is one of the biggest destinations for arms transfers today. Small Arms Survey has found that exporting states continue to send weapons to Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria, and others, to governments and to non-state armed groups.

Few major arms producers spoke. The United Kingdom, which was one of the countries initially pushing for negotiation of an ATT, sent a video message. The sixth largest exporter of conventional arms, the UK said that the ATT reflects global determination to stop irresponsible transfers. Yet it has come under pressure from human rights and arms control groups over its transfers to Israel, Russia, and others. Germany, the fourth largest exporter, indicated its ongoing support and commitment to the ATT. Last year it announced a “more restrictive” arms export policy—yet had orders for Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Algeria. France, the fifth largest exporter, spoke of the ATT’s respect for the human rights and highlighted the importance of its conscientious implementation. Yet France has been seeking to increase its arms exports, notes SIPRI, which was recently boosted by a deal with Egypt for combat aircraft.

As is seen time and again, it is the developing world that has been devastated by the indiscriminate circulation of arms, while the developed world profits. Developing countries are on the receiving end of most flows of arms, suffer the consequences of their proliferation and use, and then have to divert resources from development to deal with the aftermath of this destruction, as Antigua and Barbuda noted. “The destruction and dislocation generated by armed conflict and armed violence, the climate of uncertainty that follows the threat of violence like a shadow, seriously hamper any attempts at economic and social development or growth,” warned Sweden. “Future generations are being robbed of their heritage by the events of today.”

As Argentina explained, commercial interests, operating without scruples, have a serious impact on development. Indeed, companies and governments make billions from the international arms trade. A new fact sheet from Amnesty International indicates that the value of global arms transfers is approaching 100 billion USD annually. While the top five arms exporters—USA, Russia, China, Germany, and France—are responsible for 73% of this trade, small arms are produced by more than 1000 companies in nearly 100 countries. The arms production industry is profitable—and it is often commercial interests that direct transfer policy. “The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool, but in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the US arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing US military expenditure,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has found.

We hear countless states talk about promoting the “responsible arms trade”. We hear them say they want to prevent weapons from “falling into” the “wrong hands”. But the fact is that there are no right hands for the wrong weapons. There is no truly responsible trade for weapons. The international arms trade results in death, destruction, injury, devastation of individuals, families, communities, countries, regions. And the profits made from this horror impede the development of more socially and economically just enterprises in producing and exporting countries. The culture of violence is embedded in the societies, politics, and economics of countries on both sides of the arms trade.

Hundreds of thousands of tools of destruction are sold, billions of dollars are made. Yet what we don’t know about the arms trade remains great. And despite the restrictions and regulations set out by the ATT, even its states parties remain largely unaccountable for their transfers or for transparency around those transfers. This led many states speaking at CSP1 to call for accountability, including through public reporting, in particular from the major exporters. “It is not sufficient to express shock at the bloodshed and devastation that we see every day on the streets of Central America and the Caribbean, or in Darfur, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and other countries in Africa and the Middle East,” declared Costa Rica. We must “resist pressures from certain States for vague definitions, exclusions or loopholes that prevent us from knowing, for example, actual quantities of conventional weapons that are traded each year. Without such transparency this treaty will quickly lose its ‘raison d’etre’. Enough of excuses and ambiguities.”

Excuses and ambiguities surround all aspects of the arms trade. The ATT could be useful for confronting and minimising the challenges associated with transparency and accountability. It could help prevent atrocities, protect human rights and dignity, reduce suffering, and save lives. But to do so effectively, states parties need to implement it with these goals in mind. Any and every transfer must be measured in the strictest way against the risks. Every state must think of the Treaty in the context of peace, justice, and human rights, not profits and political manipulation. If they were to do so, the arms trade would look substantially different than it does today. It most likely would not exist at all.

Finland’s Secretary of State ended his speech with a passionate, personal appeal for his son to be able to grow up in a better world. Changing the way we engage with the trade and use of weapons is critical to meeting this goal. It is an enormous task but why should that ever prevent us from working towards that end? “We shall never give up in our struggle to make this world safer and more peaceful,” said the Finnish representative. That is the orientation states parties must take throughout the rest of this Conference and beyond.

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