Trigger Happy: Arms Sales Fall, But Not in Third World

Purchases Raise Ethical Problems

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 17, 2001 ( Arms exports have been declining since the end of the Cold War, but the Third World is buying a bigger share of the weapons.

Worldwide, arms sales diminished in 1999 to $53.4 billion, down from $58 billion the previous year, according to an analysis of the latest report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, published in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore on Feb. 12.

Compared with the high point of the Cold War sales, $92.5 billion in 1987, sales have fallen notably. While international commerce in arms fell last year, however, overall military spending remains stable. The report said that $809 billion was dedicated to the military sector in 1999, almost the same quantity as the previous year. This is down from the Cold War peak of $1.36 trillion in 1987. The reduction in arms sales in 1999 of $4.6 billion is due entirely to the cutback in purchases of $4.7 billion by Saudi Arabia.

The report, «The Military Balance 2000-2001,» points out procurement accounts for only about 20% to 30% of military spending in countries with big arms budgets. The largest slice of the defense-budget pie in those countries is usually operations, maintenance and personnel.

Mideast countries continue to be the biggest buyers of arms, with Saudi Arabia spending $6.1 billion in 1999. In Asia, shipments to Taiwan totaled $2.6 billion.

In all, the G-7 countries accounted for 85% of the exports. The United States raised its share of the world arms market to 49.1% in 1999 from 47.6% a year earlier, according to the report, while Britain was second with 18.7% of the market. In third place came France with 12.4%, after having doubled its previous market share of 6% due to price cutting. Russia, the fourth-largest exporter, boosted its market share to 6.6% from 4.6% in 1998.

Among the Western countries, U.S. arms purchases have increased 6.5% in real terms since 1995, even though defense procurement spending among European countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has dropped 2.2% in real terms. Overall defense spending by European NATO countries also continued its declining trend, falling 5% to $147 billion in constant 1999 dollars.

Russian sales increase
The increase in Russian exports noted in 1999 continued the following year. The BBC reported Feb. 7 that Russia´s arms exports reached a 10-year high in 2000 with sales nearing $4 billion. A Russian arms trade official, Viktor Komardin, said he had signed a deal to sell five Ka-31 long-range radar detection helicopters to the Indian Air Force for $100 million. He also said a new $1 billion contract with India for T-90S tanks and other weapons would be signed by the main Russian state-run arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, in the first quarter of 2001.

Russian defense officials say their goal is to sell $6 billion of weapons per year — a fraction of the $20 billion exported by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. China and India were the leading customers throughout the 1990s, each purchasing more than $1 billion of Russian arms each year, but Russia views Iran as another promising market, despite U.S. disapproval.

Russia told the United States at the end of November that it was ending its 5-year-old undertaking not to sell conventional weapons to Iran. Estimates of the potential value of new arms sales to Iran, currently flush with oil revenues, range from $1 billion to $7 billion.

Weapons sales cause concern
Although sales of weapons by Western countries have diminished, ethical concerns remain. A worrying aspect is that almost 60% of the 1999 sales were destined to Third World countries, which in many cases are struggling to pay for education and health programs. While both rich and poor countries spend, on average, approximately the same share of gross national product, 2.6%, military spending as a proportion of government revenues in the Third World reaches 13%, compared with 9% in the developed nations.

At the same time the Third World has increased its share of world military spending, from 7% in 1961 to almost 25% in 1995. From 1991 to 1998 about three-quarters of all international arms deliveries, exceeding $250 billion, were exported to developing countries.

Apart from economic questions, another source of unease is that many weapons are destined to countries that do not observe basic human rights. For example, 40% of the arms that Spain sells go to nations that violate human rights or that are involved in internal conflicts, according to a Jan. 25 report in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey are among Spain´s customers. Other buyers, such as Bulgaria and Burkina Faso, are suspected of reselling arms to guerrilla movements or to countries placed under international arms embargoes.

In England, too, protests have been made about the lack of controls on arms sales. The Telegraph reported Jan. 23 that the Labor government´s pre-election pledge to legislate to control arms exports remains «a promise unfulfilled,» according to Kim Howells, junior trade and industry minister.

Howells´ admission followed criticism of the time being taken to introduce legislation from Lord Justice Scott, who headed the inquiry into the arms to Iraq scandal. It is almost five years since the Scott report recommended changes to arms-export laws, some of which date back to 1939 and protect contracts from parliamentary scrutiny.

An article in the January issue of The World Today, published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, accused Britain of having sold arms that «have seen more service in coercion, repression and aggression than in self-defense.» In fact the article noted that in 1982 Argentina deployed British weapons in the Falklands War and that in 1991 the supply of machine tools from English companies helped to produce munitions in Iraq. The publication also accused the British government of muting its criticism of Indonesia´s occupation of East Timor due to its desire to continue selling arms.

Ethical principles
Back in 1994 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published a document on this matter, «The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection.» It notes that while the right to legitimate defense by armed means exists, at the same time this is coupled with the duty to reduce to a minimum the causes of violence.

Each state may possess only those means necessary to ensure its legitimate defense. But the excessive accumulation of weapons, or their indiscriminate transfer, is not justifiable.

The responsibility lies both on importing and exporting countries. The former should carefully evaluate the reasons why they want to acquire arms. In this sense, notes the document, the introduction of new arms into a region that can trigger an arms race is to be avoided. While the latter should evaluate the requests for purchases by judging if the transfer of certain weapons exceed the legitimate needs of would-be buyers.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace pointed out that arms can never be treated like other commercial goods because of the close relationship between weapons and violence. Therefore the law of profit cannot be supreme and sales should be subject to strict controls.

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