Magazine article New Internationalist

A Tawdry Trade

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Tawdry Trade

Article excerpt

When the notorious heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson applied for permission to fight in Scotland his promoter, Frank Warren, defended the convicted rapist by saying: 'It's not as if he's an arms dealer.'

The arms business does not have the best of names. Repression in Indonesia and East Timor, escalating tension in Zimbabwe and the Congo, the continued brutal occupation of Tibet by China, the relentless abuses of civil and human rights in Saudi Arabia, the tightening of the military fist around Malaysia - all these heighten concern about the sale of weapons, especially small arms.

The classic response from the arms business is that, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, countries have a right to defend themselves against armed attack. So, logically, they must also have the right to purchase arms. But from whom?

The world arms market is all but sewn up by a handful of giants: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and European Aeronautic Defence Systems (EADS). They roam the globe sourcing arms contracts through countries where subsidies are highest and export license requirements are minimal.

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As the arms business globalizes, loopholes emerge. Companies can avoid stringent rules by licensing the production of weapons elsewhere. Landrover licenses the use of its components to build Otokar Scorpion armoured vehicles in Turkey - hardly a responsible user of weapons itself - and in 1995 Otokar sold Scorpion armoured vehicles to Pakistan and Algeria as well.(1)

Dealers can 'broker', or organize the transfer of small arms between foreign states without having to seek permission from their own countries. In this way stockpiles of guns, still in circulation after the Second World War and the Cold War, have ended up in the hands of militias and children in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The arms business also receives huge government subsidies - a government paper estimated that the British industry receives a subsidy of nearly $600 million a year.(2) Such subsidies are exempt from the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that apply to every other international trade. Article XXI of the main WTO governing document states that a country can take any action it considers necessary 'for the protection of its essential security interests relating to the traffic in arms, ammunition and implements of war'. Arms companies are therefore double winners from the rapid liberalization of trade advocated by the WTO, profiting as well from the elimination of environmental, health and labour standards. No surprise, then, that Boeing and Allied Signal/Honeywell were both $250,000 'Emerald' sponsors of the WTO meeting in Seattle last year.(3)

A Canadian Government programme of subsidies for the military and civilian aerospace industries was ruled illegal by the WTO, so it was restructured to cover only military equipment and duly went through. 'Offset' deals - which allow Saudi Arabia to pay for huge arms purchases in oil and South Africa to accept investment in its industries as part-payment for arms - would be illegal under WTO rules if the purchases were for civilian equipment.

Along with the growth in concern about the arms trade have come the inevitable promises to clean it up. The Wassenar Arrangement of 1995 promotes 'transparency' and 'responsibility' for transfers of conventional arms among its 33 members, including the US, Russia, Australia and much of Europe. The European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, adopted in June 1998, sets out criteria to assess whether or not European countries should export arms, including respect for arms embargoes and human rights. …

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