The myopic irresponsibility of selling arms

Article published on Aug. 25, 2005
community published
Article published on Aug. 25, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since its approval in 1998, the Code of Conduct on Arms Sales, which is up for review by the European Parliament on August 29, has been violated several times. So what should the EU prioritise – ethics, politics or economics?

The arms trade is reputedly one of the world’s most important businesses - a highly strategic sector at the cutting edge of technological innovation, which creates many jobs and is controlled by major economic groups.

Demythologising the arms structure

Fortunately, however, if we take a closer look we will realise that this is at least partially untrue. According to the CRS Report for Congress, the conventional arms trade with developing nations involves some 29 billion dollars every year, which is still a long way from the figures of industries such as agribusiness and healthcare. The two leading companies supplying the military, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are not among the 200 leading multinational companies in terms of business volume.

When discussing the arms trade, it is necessary to look at the costs and benefits. For instance, Spain exported 45,000 bullets last year (for around 8,000 euros) to Sudan, which was subject to an arms embargo imposed by the EU. Sudan is currently facing the worst humanitarian crisis of our day – Darfur. Surely, neither the welfare of the Spanish government nor that of the manufacturer of this ammunition depends on these sales, but what do 45,000 bullets mean to Darfur?

More politics than economics

What does all this prove? That it is not solely economic interests that fuel the arms market, so we must also take the political dimension into account. In the European Union, an intense debate is raging because several member states are pushing to lift the arms embargo imposed on China (which dates from 1989, after the Tiananmen Square uprising). China has already stated that, in the event the embargo is not lifted, trade relations with the EU will be seriously damaged. This is where we find connections of the highest importance and come to realise the symbolic nature of embargos. Indeed France, the leader of the group in favour of lifting the embargo, has acknowledged exporting military material worth 70 million euros to the Asian behemoth between 1994 and 2003, and yet none of its European partners have raised an eyebrow.

An acceptation of political responsibility is required. In the EU, a Code of Conduct has existed since 1998, establishing a set of criteria determining which countries should not receive arms exports due to their political and democratic situation. To a greater or lesser extent, no European country is fully complying with this code, which is currently under review. The time is ripe to demand that European governments become truly responsible for their actions. Uncontrolled arms sales are not profitable since they jeopardise peace, stability and the development of nations. To avoid this situation, it is necessary to strengthen control mechanisms and ensure that they are observed and their legally binding status respected.

The attempt to bring order to the chaos of arms sales will require a pragmatic and less short-sighted approach. We must recognise the true reasons and consequences of this type of activity, demand that responsibility is taken and unveil the myths using analysis and rigorous arguments, which also offer solutions. In this respect, we must mention the civil society initiative, led by Amnesty International, the International Action Network against Small Arms (IANSA) and Oxfam, which is making significant progress towards the approval of an International Arms Trade Treaty. This treaty, which will be legally binding, has already been supported by 40 states.