The globalization of the arms industry- everything from manufacturing tank parts to the sale of guns and armored vehicles-is helping abusive governments get their hands on banned weapons and flout international arms control treaties, according to the Control Arms Campaign. U.S., European, and Canadian arms manufacturers circumvent many arms control regulations by subcontracting the manufacturing of weapons such as the Apache attack helicopter overseas to countries like China, Egypt, and Turkey. Though the practice is perfectly legal, the manufactured weapons have found their way to destinations such as Colombia and Sudan, where they are often used to kill or displace civilians, the campaign charges in a recent report titled “Arms Without Borders.”
Both the United States and the European Union have policies against selling certain types of arms directly to China due to that country’s human-rights record. However, some weapons manufacturers are allowed to subcontract labor to Chinese companies; China’s new Z-10 attack helicopter could not operate without weapons and parts technology that comes from various U.S. and European firms. China has recently sold attack helicopters to the Sudanese government, which both the United States and the United Nations have accused of genocide.
“This report reveals a litany of loopholes and destroyed lives,” says Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, one of the member organizations of the Campaign. “Arms companies are global, yet arms regulations are not, and the result is the arming of abusive regimes. Europe and North America are fast becoming the IKEA of the arms industry, supplying parts for human-rights abusers to assemble at home, with the morals not included.”
This trend in subcontracting the manufacture of weapons is fueled, in part, by a rise in military budgets across the globe. While military conflicts have been decreasing (a fact all too easily overlooked, given the dominance of the Iraq war in the U.S. and international media), military budgets have been trending upward and reached roughly $1 trillion in 2005, the highest figure in more than a decade. China, India, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were among the countries that increased their purchase of armaments. The United States government recently indicated that it, too, might permanently expand the size of its military. With an annual budget of around $400 billion, and 1.4 million in personnel, the U.S. military is already the largest in the world.
According to the report, increased defense spending is itself a problem. Military budgets are often in excess of legitimate need, and defense spending diverts resources away from education and health. Countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa spent $22.5 billion on weapons in 2004, an 8% jump from 2003. With the same amount of money, those countries could have enrolled every child in their respective countries in school and reduced child mortality by two-thirds by the year 2015.
One remedy to the situation would be a new international arms control treaty based on already existing humanitarian, human rights, and international criminal law. The treaty would set minimum global standards for arms transfers and, if implemented correctly, still enable the responsible manufacture and sale of arms for defense, policing, and other vital missions. “Like much international law, the Treaty could be most effectively enforced through a system of public oversight based on regular reporting by states of their arms transfers. Legal review and redress of cases through national judicial procedures should be used where necessary,” the report states.
A new global arms accord as extensive as the one the Campaign is proposing might strike policy makers as wishful; after all, if governments were able to reach agreements on subjects like weapons they wouldn’t feel the need to buy so many guns. Regardless, a precedent does exist for international small arms control. Prior to 1997, roughly 26,000 people per year were killed or injured by land mines. The 1997 Ottawa Treaty has since brought that number down considerably.
“The only people who have an interest in the continued failure to control the global arms trade are those who benefit from irresponsible transfers. Everyone else, including ordinary people, most economic actors, and almost every government, has an overwhelming interest in ensuring the responsible and consistent regulation,” the authors conclude.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2007.