SEATTLE, Washington — On the sides of tear gas canisters and on crates of munitions and arms in places of conflict there are labels like those found on T-shirt tags that read “Made in _____.” In war-torn developing nations it has become more commonplace for those tags to read: United States of America.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute monitored the international arms industry in recent years and found that the U.S. was the leading international exporter of conventional weapons doubling the annual profits of Russia, its nearest competitor.
Additionally, well over half of those sales were made to developing nations. A recent study shows that since 2010, the sale of weapons to developing nations has skyrocketed. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, total sales increased from around $30 billion to over $70 billion.
Conventional Arms’ Impact on the Developing World
Often, the legal weapon trade is shadowed by a current of illegal trades and illicit weapon deals between nations and groups. A recent United Nations paper categorizes the effects of this trade on the poor, pointing out that a lack of regulations around the arms trade has had dire consequences for those caught in, or fleeing from, conflicts. It also accounts for the significant toll incurred on human life by allowing conventional arms to move so freely.
Increased conflict, whether it is between state or militia groups, is inextricably linked to increased poverty and poor health conditions. In countries like Somalia and Syria, the extreme violence has displaced huge populations and done irreparable harm to millions of survivors.
The UN argues that “in addition to the direct deprivation of the right to life, other human rights violations are linked to the misuse of weapons by armed individuals: high incidence of rape . . . the recruitment of children into armed forces and groups, closures of schools, limitations on the right to freedom of association and to participate in the cultural life of the community.”
In addition to the human impact, there are devastating impacts on development. The arms trade has, in places like the African continent, slowed development to a crawl. The UN estimates that in as little as a decade, African countries missed out on a $284 billion dollars of aid due to armed conflicts.
The countries that have been the hardest hit by recurring conflict are also countries that have made the least progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
The UN advocates for broader international standards regarding the arms trade in an effort to reduce the incidences of human rights violations at least insofar as they can be controlled by the member states who participate in the sale and dispersal of conventional weaponry.
Business is Good?
One of the major dilemmas for the U.S. arms industry is the government’s strict stance against weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons. While these weapons pose a sincere threat to millions of lives around the world, evidence shows that conventional weaponry is responsible for the majority of deaths in most international conflicts.
It is a tightrope walk for American politicians because many of them protect these very business interests in their own districts while simultaneously abhorring the violence seen in failed states like Somalia. Ironically, American-made weaponry has found its way there too.
The challenge that both the UN and the U.S. face is how they can legitimately insist upon the control and destruction of certain weapons while wholesaling equally lethal types of arms. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the weapons sold in developing nations are likely to be used upon the most vulnerable in a population.
New Presidential Directive
While U.S. President Barack Obama has not altered the upward trend of the arms trade to the developing world, a new directive issued by the White House might signal a change in stance.
Presidential Policy Directive 27 makes the promise that the government will be more selective about who they trade American-made arms and munitions with. However, it also continues to advance a policy of increasing American exports, which might be at odds with arms regulation.
William D. Hartung with the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy is skeptical that the directive will mean any real change, but he remains cautiously optimistic that the U.S. government is serious about not supplying weapons to groups that might use them to violate international humanitarian law.
With that said, it has never been the policy of the U.S. to sell weapons to violent and dangerous regimes. And yet American-made weaponry has been utilized by more than a few tyrants. Critics are concerned that anything short of strict regulation or abolition will likely not curb the current explosion in the U.S. arms trade.