Armed conflicts, militarization, Violence

Global Arms Trade on the Rise

Oct 7 2020

Nadia Batok*

The arms race is increasingly becoming a world-wide phenomenon, with spending by developing countries having increased over the last eight years from about seven billion dollars to about 45 billion dollars. For years the world has been diverting annually about 350 billion dollars at today’s prices to military purposes with enormous economic and social consequences and extremely harmful effects on world peace and security. 

We talk about environment and development, but we rarely talk about the billions of dollars’ worth of spending on armaments; such spending receives very little public analysis because most of it is done in secrecy and does not reach public awareness. 

Sadly enough, some of the rapid increases have occurred in the poorest countries. For many years, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Somalia and Yemen, for example, have spent more on their military than they have on their people’s education and health. And it is no secret that humanitarian donations in Africa and Latin America often go on arms. 

Today the top exporters of weapons to developing countries are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and  United States) plus Germany and Italy. 

While these sales are largely of expensive hardware, such as submarines, warships or sophisticated fighter aircraft and military helicopters, much of the damage is now being done by light weapons and smaller arms. 

The resources spent on these could have been invested in development, health care, culture and education, and if every state in the world allocated only 1 percent of the money it spent on arms and put it to much better use, we can only imagine the level of prosperity that would prevail in the world. Suffice it to say that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic showed how unprepared health systems are, in every country, because of scarce investment in health care. 

States should participate in strategic arms reduction talks and in negotiations on short and intermediate nuclear forces, chemical weapon disarmament and structural change in the economy and conversion of the defence industry with a view to limiting the arms industry. Nations should share security interests and create opportunities for developing security policies based on cooperation instead of competition or confrontation. 

Strenuous efforts should be made to reduce the burden of military spending, stop proliferation, and improve multilateral peacekeeping and peacemaking in order to eliminate nuclear and conventional forces and move toward cooperative demilitarisation and progress. 

In 2019 the United States spent  around $718,69 billion on its military, and spends far more than all its competitors combined. According to a report of the Department of Defence, the budget for the five branches of the US military – Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guard – for fiscal year 2020 is approximately $ 721,530 billion. At the same time, the US has 800 military bases worldwide.

Reducing the size of the international arm production and trade is a seemingly impossible task. The over-production of arms is inevitable when arms industries operate freely in capitalist world, and it is difficult to stop in the face of state resistance and vested corporate interest.

The 2014 Arms Trade Treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional weapons has no impact on the nature or size of the global arms trade and  unfortunately it will not greatly reduce the international arms trade. 

The Stockholm  International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that the total value of global military expenditure in 2019 was at least $ 1,917 billion, and the top 100 arms companies made an estimated $ 398.2 billion worth of sales. 

Amnesty International has noted that the scale of  global arms production and trade is shocking, with twelve billion bullets being produced every year, almost enough to kill everyone in the world twice. 

Every day, thousands of people are  killed, injured, maimed, traumatised and forced to flee their homes, whole regions devastated, and the development of the economy and infrastructure of whole states destroyed, because of gun violence and arms conflicts. 

Do we need to produce, sell and use cluster bombs, anti-personnel land-mines, millions of guns, nuclear weapons or killer robots … can we really apply the law against the production force of weapons? 

Weapons and ammunition are produced in shockingly large quantities, because what matters is the profit going into the pockets of the arms manufacturers and dealers who supply  weapons  to the world’s regions of crises and war, fuelling  the fire of wars unscrupulously with constantly increasing shipments of arms. 

The effects of arms race are widely believed to have significant consequences for the “security” of states, increasing the probability of war by undermining military stability and straining political relations. 

Corporations that make nuclear weapons and those that supply them have a vested interest in stocking the nuclear arms race and they lobby governments accordingly. But parliamentarians, legislators, civil society activists can slow the nuclear arms race down by working to cut nuclear weapons budgets and end investments in the nuclear weapon industry. 

However, it is extremely difficult for civil society to directly influence Russian or US arms policy. The United States walked away from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1987, to eliminate all nuclear weapons that had been deployed in Europe and had put the continent on the path to nuclear war. 

Then the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement which currently prevents Iran from building or acquiring nuclear weapons. The US has accused Iran of producing nuclear weapons, but in 2005 Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly stated Iran is not developing nuclear weapons and shall never acquire these weapons.

Meanwhile the START Treaty which limits the number of US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons has expired, with no renewal in sight. 

Sixty-five years ago the Russell-Einstein Manifesto was issued, a historical document signed by a number of pre-eminent intellectuals and scientists, including Albert Einstein. The Manifesto called for the governments of the world to abolish nuclear weapons in order to eliminate the imminent danger of nuclear warfare and an existential threat to the human race. The Manifesto did not lead to the eradication of nuclear weapons, but it did generate widespread awareness of the catastrophic dangers of nuclear war.

The world’s only permanent multilateral disarmament treaty negotiating body is the Conference on Disarmament (CD) which has a permanent agenda, also known as the “Decalogue”, which includes the following topics: 

·     Nuclear weapons in all aspects;

·     Other weapons of mass destruction;

·     Conventional weapons;

·     Reduction of military budgets;

·     Reduction of armed forces;

·     Disarmament and development;

·     Disarmament and international security;

·     Collateral measures; confidence building measures; effective verification methods in relation to appropriate disarmament measures, acceptable to all parties;

·     Comprehensive programme of disarmament leading to general and complete disarmament under effective international control. 

However it has been inactive since 1996, and this disappointing fact puts at risk the future of consensus-based disarmament. 

In 2017 the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which could lead to a wider global divestment movement. 

Nevertheless, as treaties collapse can we still prevent a nuclear arms race? Today we are at a higher risk of nuclear war and urgent steps are needed to avoid a new nuclear arms race. If the Russia-US nuclear deal dies, it may be the end of arms control as we know it. 

Unfortunately, the arms race is continuing unabated; neither the production nor trade of weapons have stopped during this COVID-19 period. 

Peace cannot be discussed with those who produce and sell weapons and shut out smiles instead of shutting their plants.

An appeal to consciences should be moved to oppose arms producers, exporters, politics and the military, by educating, informing and mobilising all people on the planet and perhaps establishing a global network … to stop the arms trade.


* Nadia Batok is a political scientist specialised in international relations.

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