The Global Arms Trade: Strengthening International Regulations

Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Global Arms Trade: Strengthening International Regulations


Mr. President, you are internationally recognized as an advocate on behalf of the developing world. How has the international arms trade--"licit" and illicit--affected the economic growth of the world's poorest nations? More specifically, how has weapons trading impacted the economies of Latin America?

For more than 20 years, I have made peace and demilitarization a personal mission. Today, as President of Costa Rica for a second term, I have challenged the international community to redefine its priorities. When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness.

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Global expenditure on arms and soldiers is more than one trillion dollars per year. That's approximately US$3.3 billion per day. This staggering misallocation of resources is a brutal demonstration of the skewed priorities and values in many societies. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach. By a conservative estimate, we turn out eight million small arms per year, and yet we have not managed to ensure that all our children receive a decent education. This is not a necessary or inevitable state of affairs. It is a deliberate choice.

The consequences of the at choice for the developing world are devastating. The governments of some of the poorest nations on Earth, including some from Latin America, continue to squander millions on troops, tanks and missiles. In 2006, the region's military spending was over US$32 billion, which 194 million people languished in poverty. Latin America has begun a new arms race, regardless of the fact that the region has never been more democratic; regardless of the fact that in the last century it has rarely seen military conflicts between nations; regardless of the fact that a host of dire needs in the fields of education and public health demand attention. We understand now more than ever that the educational catastrophes of today are the economic catastrophes of tomorrow, and yet some leaders continue to make war their priority, instead of children.

Ironically, this mistake leaves Latin America less safe than before--because investment in education is not just an investment in the future prosperity of our economies. It is also a consolidation of democracy, and a safeguard against a return to the authoritarian political culture that has marred and bloodied our history. Failing to make this investment weakens our resistance to those authoritarian temptations, weakens our defense against the demagoguery of some populists, and weakens us against the extremist ideology that lies beneath some political organizations. Some governments justify their absurd military spending in the name of protecting their people, but by neglecting education and other social services, they risk the very democracy and liberty that our region has worked so hard to achieve.

Spending more on education and technology would involve sacrifices, of course. It would involve sacrifices like the money invested in every Sukhoi Su-30k aircraft, which costs approximately US$34 million; those funds could buy 200,000 MIT Media Lab computers for schools. It would involve sacrifices like the money invested in every Black Hawk helicopter, which costs approximately US$6 million; those funds could pay a US$100 monthly educational grant for 5,000 students for an entire year. The choice is clear.

Could you describe the goals of the Costa Rica Consensus? How does it aim to establish criteria for debt relief so as to reward nations that reduce arms spending?

As we all know, war is an industry, providing multimillion-dollar profits for companies and countries that engage in it. Peace threatens those profits, and often results in decreased support for those who achieve it. …

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