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Light being thrown on the shadow world of arms trade

"War?  What is it good for?"  "Well, making arms traders very rich for starters".

“War? What is it good for?”
“Well, making arms traders very rich for starters”.

AOAV was one of many at an international congress of health practitioners in Villigen-Schwemmingen, Germany, from 30 May to 02 June.  Organised by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the meeting was designed to discuss the social and health effects of the global trade in arms.

It was a useful gathering of minds.  Experts discussed how arms end up in conflict zones, how exports are decided, controlled and, ultimately, who profits from them. They reflected on the human consequences of weapons and debated opportunities to better control and prevent this trade.

One of the star guests was Andrew Feinstein, author of the book the “Shadow world”. He gave a compelling presentation on how arms exports, corruption and complete lack of transparency go hand in hand.  Together, they create a murky shadow world where the interests of governments and arms industries are often intertwined. Feinstein attests that around 80% of retired militaries in the United States end up with senior positions in the weapons industry. And many of the senior managers of arms companies move high up in the government administration.

The system of ‘revolving doors’ it is called. Or is this ‘revolting doors’?

Lack of transparency and weak reporting practices are fuelling this grey area in the weapons trade. Transparency International estimates that in 2012 corruption in the arms trade reached at least 20 billion USD. This is more than twice the entire yearly value of the trade in small arms and light weapons.

Overall, every year, the trade in weapons is estimated at 60 billion USD.  And another 20 billion USD go into corruption to facilitate this trade.

Other speakers included Nick Marsh from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. He highlighted the special position of the arms trade within states. His talk revealed how the arms trade is relatively small compared to the trade in other goods, and that the economic interests of governments and individuals is less than what might be thought.  But, despite this, it was made clear that this trade was given special interest by states. Often regular trade rules that apply to any other good do not apply to arms transactions. Military procurements are often secret and in certain cases not disclosed to anyone. Data on the arms commerce remains very limited and state subsidies (both direct and indirect) to arms industries are a regular practice.

So just how can issues of transparency and arms trade be dealt with? There are a number of effective advocacy messages that civil society can use to call their governments accountable:

  • Call on states to stop any direct subsidies to arms industries.
  • Call on governments to stop indirect subsidies to arms industries through embassy and intelligence services.
  • Call for a stop of military aid in the form of weapons’ gifts.
  • Call for increased transparency on how countries buy and export weapons, including public recording of these transactions.
  • Call on governments to adhere to the Arms Trade Treaty.

This meeting of minds in Germany left many participants with a feeling of profound revulsion towards this deadly shadow world but this only increased their commitment, energy and will to tackle it.

And they will.