Concerning global arms trade

Amir Mohammad Sayem

The arms trade is on the rise. It is one of the most economically significant trades around the world. Each year, around one hundred billion US dollars are spent for buying arms by state and non-state actors. Usually, developed and militarily powerful countries spend more on the development of weapons than developing and less developed countries. But many developing countries are increasingly spending more on producing and buying arms for increasing military strengths. Furthermore, non-state actors in some countries buy arms for continuing civil wars or other reasons. Because of the increased arms race and conflicts, the development of weapons and the trade of arms seem a never-ending scenario in the world.

Of course, there are diverse motivations for the arms trade — both conventional and unconventional — including small arms and light weapons, battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, landmines, cluster munitions, ammunition and artillery. Motivation mainly revolves around domestic and international security concerns. These may be perceived and/or real. Moreover, there are some other motivations for the export of arms such as strategic, economic and political gains. Different powerful countries want to make or strengthen strategic relations with alliance countries, earn money and gain political influence over others. But motives of arms trade can change over time. During the cold war, motivations were predominated by exporting arms to alliance countries or partners for strategic gains and political influence, but these shifted after the cold war in which political influence and monetary gains were predominant.

Undeniably, the arms trade has positive and negative impacts. Positively, it can help a sovereign country defend it from foreign aggression, provide security to its people in the context of civil war or minimize threats of non-state actors. Negatively, it can lead to increased conflicts, sustain conflicts for long, take away lives of millions of people and bring many other direct and indirect negative impacts such as displacement of millions of people from their home places and putting constant threat to living under weapons. While there are examples of avoidable conflicts between countries, there are examples of civil war-like conflicts that last for years — or, even decades. For example, the civil wars in Syria and Afghanistan that sustained for a long are related to the arms trade, even if there are some other reasons including the competition for power.

Moreover, increased arms trade leads to compromise in some important aspects such as the economic progression of a country and reduced social opportunities including education. Of course, the budget allocation on defense is rising year by year in different countries including those which are less resourceful. More and more countries are producing, selling and buying weapons that are causing increased arms trade. Also, non- state actors are spending more on buying arms with money earned by them and/or supplied by allied parties within and outside the state boundary. Consequently, deserved emphasis is not given on other social aspects needed for the progression of countries from a broader viewpoint but also for the wellbeing of a significant portion of people.

But an important question remains on the extent to which arms trade, which is related to the global arms race, is acceptable. Alternatively, can there be a limit to the arms trade? Of course, as noted earlier, nations need arms to protect civilians from internal threats and threats of foreign aggression. Since many countries cannot produce advanced arms or their arms are scant to ensure security put by enemy countries or terror groups within the state, imports of arms are needed. But the types of arms to be imported considerably depend on the types of internal and external threats. Undeniably, self-defense is the right of all states from foreign aggression and getting protected from attacks including domestic terrors is the right of the people. Alternatively, the export and import of arms may be in proportionate to internal and external security threats and repressive acts of the government over oppositions, depending on some other factors including relations between importer and exporter and financial ability.

Of course, oppositions or rival groups sometimes buy arms to tackle the government especially when the repression of oppositions crosses the limit — perceived or actual —and overthrow the government for mere intention to hold the state power. In many countries, oppositions are enormously deprived of their political rights and repressive acts are carried out against them by the state authority. As is often said, oppositions were repressed in Syria and some other countries by the state authorities. Besides, there was the deprivation of people of their diverse needs such as jobs and improved living standards that motivated them to join against the government. Thus, putting a desirable limit to the global arms trade may not be the case in reality, unless demand for arms — driven by the threats of foreign aggression, terror attacks within the country and massive political repression against the opposition and gross deprivation of people by the state authority, along with a supply-side tendency of global powers to supply arms for earning money, exerting influence or any other reasons — are not reduced.

Yet, because of the immense negative impacts of the arms trade, global arms trade should be given a rethought. In this respect, the much-talked-about Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) — which came into force on 24 December 2014 — that aims to regulate the international trade in conventional arms and seeks to prevent and eradicate illicit trade, improve regional security and stability and promote accountability and transparency by state parties regarding the transfers of conventional arms has good potentials. But it is not ratified by a considerable number of countries and is considered to be too weak to make any real difference. Undeniably, there are some notable loopholes in the treaty including a lack of effective enforcement mechanism and effective monitoring of global arms trade or provision of recording of sold weapons.

Of course, different states including more powerful ones have some significant roles to play. Powerful countries, especially from the viewpoint of military strengths or military arsenal, need to reflect their prudence more in the arms trade especially in conflict-prone areas/countries and, as is often criticized, should not create conditions in other counties for the increased arms trade. But, of course, different countries especially those that are repressive to oppositions should give deserved space to oppositions so that they are not compelled to get engaged with civil war against the regime. Moreover, each country needs to put deserved emphasis on other important aspects including improved social, economic and other conditions needed for the well-being of the people.

Not less important is that more emphasis on the diplomatic approach aiming at the mitigation of conflicts and addressing underlying political and geo-political causes of civil wars and inter-country wars can be enormously helpful. In this respect, strengthening the diplomatic capacity of international organizations especially the United Nations can be an effective means. Indeed, successful diplomacy may help put a limit to the global arms trade — directly or indirectly — especially through the reduction of the very necessity of buying arms to a considerable extent by both state and non-state actors.

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