Trading in Death and Suffering — The World Arms Trade


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.”

— Former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 16, 1953.

There is a clear link between poverty and inequality and a world that spends huge amounts of money on military equipment preparing for war and uses warfare to resolve conflict. Money that should be invested in education, health and social development is diverted to military purposes. According to the United Nations, 25 countries studied spend more on weapons than on education; 15 countries spend more on the military than on education and health combined.

The Human Cost of the Arms Trade

And of course it doesn’t stop there, many of these arms sales are made knowingly to countries that are human rights violators, repressive military dictatorships and corrupt governments. Arms sold to foreign governments are often used against their own people. In the end it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most, the main victims of the arms trade are civilians. In modern warfare 90% of war casualties are civilians, 80% of who are women and children, a century ago 90% of war casualties were military personnel. The vast majority of civilians killed were from the poorest countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Between 1982 and 1992, 1.5 million children were killed in armed conflicts. A further 4.5 million survived, but were left disabled. Refugees are another part of the enormous toll exacted by such conflicts. Between 1985 and 1996, more than 46 million people became refugees, or were displaced within their own country as a result of warfare. This is more than double the number of a decade ago.

The Big Business of Arms Trading

Total global military expenditure and trade in arms is $840 Billion dollars annually, the largest spending in the world. This is some 14 times more than it is estimated is needed to eradicate poverty from the world. Many struggling developing countries like India, South Africa, Turkey and others simply can’t afford to be buying arms. South Africa recently signed a $3.5 billion arms deal with European countries; that’s a 100 times more than its HIV treatment budget and ten times more than its housing budget.

By itself the arms trade accounts for over 36.9 billion and is the second biggest trade in the world, after narcotics. Worldwide arms sales rose in 2000 for the third year in a row. The top six sellers in the international arms market are the USA with about half of the total sales of $18.6 billion, Russia with $7.7 billion, France with $4.1 billion, Germany with $ 1.1 billion, Britain with $600 million and China with $400 million.

The US share of the market in 2000 was up considerably from a 36% share in 1999.

The US is also dominant in selling weapons to countries of the developing world, with 70% of the market share. According to a report by Richard F. Grimmett, for the Council for a Liveable World, developing nations remain the largest market for weapons and a growing one. Since the end of the cold war in 1990, there have been over $115 billion worth of arms sales to developing countries. The largest importing region for arms remains the Middle East, which accounts for three quarters of the world’s arms trade (in particular Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE and Egypt), followed by East Asia with the fastest growth in South Korea, China, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading arms purchaser, acquiring weapons systems worth $36.4 billion from the US alone between 1994 and 1997. China ranks second in the world, buying less than half that of Saudi Arabia. Well over 90% of these transfers came from the developed world, with the USA and the EU combined accounting for 75%.

The USA’s Technology of Death

In the US, the president decides which countries will receive military assistance and arms. The president gives Congress a list of countries that can receive arms from the US manufacturers. The US arms transfer determinations take into account certain criteria, including, “the human rights, terrorism and proliferation record of the recipient and potential for misuse of the export in question” (Criteria for Decision Making on US Arms Exports). Despite this 85% of US arms transfers between 1990-95 went to nations in the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) and Africa, among others, that did not meet the criteria.

From 1990 to 2000, US military sales to Israel totaled over $18 billion (this does not include military aid). The UN, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have been critical of the use of US military sales and aid by Israeli forces in the occupied Palestinian territories. The US also supplies four-fifths of Turkey’s military imports. Turkey has used these weapons to suppress internal political dissent and carry out military campaigns against the rebellious Kurdish minority. An estimated twenty thousand Kurds have been killed and 2.5 million displaced from their villages by the Turkish army’s operations.

The gruesome results of the arms export industry have not stopped president after president from supporting the arms corporations. Even those with ‘liberal’ sounding agendas like former president Jimmy Carter, who as a candidate in June 1976 said, ” we cannot be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of the weapons of war.” After his election these concerns disappeared and one of his early acts was to approve the largest sale of US military equipment for many years, 200 advanced jet fighters to US allies Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.

Later, in the early 1990s the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Bill Clinton stated, “I expect to review our arms sales policy and take it up with the other major arms sellers of the world as a part of a long-term effort to reduce the proliferation of weapons.” Once elected though, instead of putting forward human rights concerns to the arms industry, Clinton continued the arms sales policy of President Bush.

During Clinton’s first year in office, US arms sales more than doubled. Over two thirds of all arms agreements went to dictatorships that were violating human rights. From 1993 to 1997, the US government sold, approved or gave away $190 billion in weapons to various countries. Among them, many nations with deplorable human rights records, including Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Israel. In 1997 alone, Clinton approved $83 billion in military assistance to dictatorships. Meanwhile, the arms industry donated $2 million to the Democratic Party in the 1998 US election.

And when it comes to making big money, the Clinton administration had no problem selling in areas of regional conflict arming possible foes engaged in regional rivalry. Two American NATO allies for instance, Greece and Turkey are also two of the USA ‘s largest arms buyers. Both countries have come close to war several times over the Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island of Cyprus as well as territorial disputes in the Aegean. Barred by the US Congress from selling “offensive” weapons to Cyprus itself, the US in 1997, for instance, sold more than $270 million worth of weapons to Greece and $750 million to Turkey.

Besides the US, there are other countries that export conventional arms to countries violating human rights. For instance, Britain increased arms sales to Israel (which almost doubled, despite its repressive military actions in the occupied territories), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal and China. While France sent arms to Indonesia and various West African countries with poor human rights records.

The Small Arms Trade

Small arms and light weapons have been the most commonly used weapons in 90% of the conflicts since 1990 and were responsible for over 95% of all deaths. With about 550 million small arms in circulation worldwide, small arms are the real weapons of mass destruction, killing at least 400,000 people every year. According to the UN, small weapons have killed an estimated 4 million people since 1990. Apart from their use in armed conflicts, Amnesty International says small arms are used to commit human rights abuses in 100 countries around the world.

The widespread availability of small arms fuel civil wars and other violent conflicts, harming millions of people and fragile infrastructure of already impoverished developing countries. UN reports have shown that many of these weapons are illicitly exported and transported with the connivance of government officials in many countries and smuggled into war zones. Both legal and illicit trade of small arms are a global problem and reducing the flow of small arms will save millions of innocent lives and greatly improve the prospects for development in poor countries.

UN Efforts to Curb the Illicit Trade in Small Arms

In July 2001, the UN held a two-week conference on controlling illicit sales of small weapons attended by representatives of 140 nations, but the strong opposition by the US blocked any tough action on the arms trade. The conference only agreed on a voluntary, unenforceable international pact, requiring manufacturers to compile records on small arms sales and mark weapons to trace their origin.

The US further refused any agreement that implied any restriction on the right of people to carry weapons and that would bar governments from selling arms to “non-state actors,” which really means insurgent and other rebel groups. The US also said it wanted to remain free to supply arms to whichever group it chooses (for example, countries governed by undemocratic regimes). There were many expressions of frustration and resentment against the US attitude, especially from some European and African governments. The South African delegate, Jean Du Preez said, “We are very disappointed, the US should be ashamed of themselves.”

Amnesty International coordinator, Brian Wood stated that, “the main spoilers at the conference are the world’s biggest small arms producers and some their dependents and allies.” Human rights activists said the pact’s other great flaw was that it failed to place demands on legal exporters and manufacturers, whose weapons also end up in the hands of various armed groups.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, while the accord was not as strong as he would have liked, it represented an important first step and urged the US to reconsider its position. Not really such a surprising result considering that the corporate arms trade exporters have in the five permanent members of the Security Council, the five major arms supplying countries in the world.

The arms trade is a major problem throughout the world, but with huge profiteering in this pernicious trade, the world community lacks the decisive political will to make a concerted effort to curtail the flow of arms. And as the corporate weapons exporters go on selling arms and making profits, so the carnage in human lives goes on.


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