Arms Sales in the Cross Hairs

Renewed Efforts to Curb a Global Trade

LONDON, NOV. 1, 2003 ( Concerns over arms proliferation have led three nongovernmental organizations to launch a campaign seeking to limit this trade. Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms announced the initiative in England on Oct. 9.

The three organizations will be active on the issue in more than 50 countries, a press release said. The Control Arms campaign aims to reduce arms proliferation and misuse and to convince governments to introduce a binding arms trade treaty.

The NGOs contend that current arms export controls are riddled with loopholes. The availability of arms both increases the incidence of armed violence and prolongs wars once they break out, they argue. Moreover, they point out that efforts to fight international terrorism are actually stimulating arms sales, regardless of human rights or development concerns.

“The arms trade is out of control,” said Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam. “It is a global problem with horrific local consequences — and it is poor people who suffer the most. An arms trade treaty is desperately needed, to stop the flow of arms to abusers and to help make all our societies safer.”

A briefing published to coincide with the campaign launch noted that one-third of countries spend more on the military than they do on health-care services. The problem is particularly acute in developing nations. An average of $22 billion a year is spent on arms by countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Just half of this amount would enable every child in those regions to go to primary school. Overall, 42% of countries with the highest defense burden rank among the lowest in human development.

A draft arms trade treaty has been developed by a group of human rights, development and arms-control NGOs including Amnesty International and Oxfam in partnership with international legal experts. The central aim is to provide a set of common minimum standards for the control of arms transfers, based firmly on states existing responsibilities under international law.

Brisk sales

In August, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual yearbook on armaments and international security. The study revealed that worldwide military expenditure, already on the increase since 1998, accelerated sharply in 2002. Last year saw a 6% in real terms, to $794 billion in current prices. This amount is equivalent to 2.5% of the world’s gross domestic product. Current levels of world military expenditure are now 14% higher in real terms compared to the post-Cold War low of 1998. But they are still 16% below the 1988 peak.

Almost three-quarters of the increase in 2002 came from the United States, which augmented its military spending by 10% in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The United States now accounts for 43% of world military expenditure.

Another country to sharply increase expenditure was China. It increased military spending by 18% in 2002. Russia also stepped up spending, with a 12% increase. The top five spenders — the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, France and China — account for 62% of total world military expenditure. The top 15 account for 82%.

Behind the overall figures on military expenditure are notable regional disparities. In 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, the Mideast spent an estimated 6.3% of its gross domestic product on the military, while Latin America spent only 1.3%.

Some of the data in the SIPRI report pour cold water on the claims that the war on terror has aggravated arms proliferation and conflicts. In 2002, there were 21 major armed conflicts in 19 locations throughout the world. Both the number of conflicts and the number of locations were lower than in 2001, when there were 24 major armed conflicts in 22 locations. In fact, the number of major armed conflicts in 2002 was the lowest since 1998.

Moreover, while military expenditures are rising, major conventional arms transfers in the period 1998-2002 remained at a post-Cold War low, reported SIPRI. And despite an increase in the period 2000-2002, the five-year moving average for 2002 was the lowest so far.

The United States was the largest supplier in 1998-2002 with 41% of global deliveries. Russia, in second place, accounted for 22% of total arms transfers. For the second year in a row, Russia in 2002 was the largest supplier, with 36% of global deliveries.

SIPRI observed that among the major arms recipients were countries involved in wars against terrorism. Yet it stated that the data do “not support the hypothesis that levels of major arms transfers would be higher because of anti-terrorist deliveries in 2002.” In fact, SIPRI noted that most transfers of major conventional weapons during 2002 were the result of decisions taken before September 2001. According to the report, it is too soon to say how important anti-terrorist activities will be for the future trend in transfers of major weapons.

The report noted the problems in controlling arms sales, particularly with implementing U.N. arms embargoes. It pointed out the need for further development of instruments to monitor the arms trade, both in closing loopholes and in coordinating the monitoring of arms transfers from departure to arrival at the authorized final destination.

Small-arms control

One area of the arms trade to receive major attention in recent times is the proliferation of small arms. From July 7 to 11, the United Nations held a meeting to review the implementation of the 2001 “Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.”

Small arms and light weapons kill more than half a million people each year, including 300,000 in armed conflict and 200,000 from homicides and suicides, said a July 3 U.N. press release. The Program of Action calls for a range of measures: legislation on illegal manufacturing, possession, stockpiling and trade in small arms; destruction of weapons confiscated; identification and tracing of the illicit arms; international cooperation and assistance to states to strengthen their ability to identify and trace the illicit weapons; and public awareness campaigns.

During the meeting in New York, a number of countries reported on new national legislation to limit small arms, noted a July 9 press release. Some U.N. delegates pointed out the need for greater international cooperation, pointing to cross-border proliferation and increasingly transnational networks.

An international survey on small arms, published during the meeting, revealed many problems still to be dealt with. The study showed disappointingly low levels of transparency about the global arms trade, with only about 20 countries providing annual export reports, the Associated Press reported July 8. Sixty countries are known to be engaged in the legal trade.

The survey said its estimate of the global value of small-arms production remains unchanged at about $7.4 billion. Peter Batchelor, the survey’s project director, said the illicit trade is believed to be worth about $1 billion.

During the July meeting, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, called on nations “to develop and implement educational and awareness activities aimed at promoting a culture of peace and life.”

Archbishop Migliore returned to arms matters in an Oct. 8 speech on the subject of general disarmament. “If we are to aspire to general and complete disarmament, we must first of all show a respect for life and the dignity and human rights of individuals,” he said. This implies a number of factors he explained, from the rejection of violence to the promotion of freedom, justice, solidarity and tolerance. A tall order for a heavily armed world.

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