The arms trade: an industry out of control

“It is estimated that every year small arms alone kill more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together”
Desmond Tutu
Published: 14 September 2006

Archbishop Desmond Tutu marks the Control Arms Day of Action with an urgent call to the UN to put an Arms Trade Treaty at the top of their agenda at the upcoming General Assembly in October.

For many years, I’ve been involved in the peace business, doing what I can to help people overcome their differences. In doing so, I’ve also learned a lot about the business of war: the arms trade. In my opinion it is the modern slave trade. It is an industry out of control: every day more than 1,000 people are killed by conventional weapons. The vast majority of those people are innocent men, women and children.

There have been international treaties to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for decades. Yet, despite the mounting death toll, there is still no treaty governing sales of all conventional weapons from handguns to attack helicopters.

As a result, weapons fall into the wrong hands all too easily, fuelling human rights abuses, prolonging wars and digging countries deeper into poverty. This is allowed to continue because of the complicity of governments, especially rich countries’ governments, who turn a blind eye to the appalling human suffering associated with the proliferation of weapons.

It is estimated that every year small arms alone kill more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. Many more people are injured, terrorized or driven from their homes by armed violence. Even as you read this, one of these human tragedies is unfolding somewhere on the planet.

A worldwide problem

You only need to pick up a newspaper to see the worldwide scale of the problem. From the conflict in the Middle East, to the killings in Darfur, to gun violence in Brazil, the lack of global controls on the arms trade is causing the suffering of innocent people.

Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed violence recently flared up again, and millions have died during almost a decade of conflict. Despite a UN arms embargo against armed groups in the country, weapons have continued to flood in from all over the world.

Arms found during weapons collections include those made in Germany, France, Israel, USA and Russia. The only common denominator is that nearly all these weapons were manufactured outside Africa.

Five rich countries manufacture the vast majority of the world’s weapons. In 2005, Russia, the United States, France, Germany and the UK accounted for an estimated 82 per cent of the global arms market. And it’s big business: the amount that rich countries spend on fighting HIV/AIDS every year represents just 18 days global spending on arms.

But while the profits flow back to the developed world, the effects of the arms trade are predominantly felt in developing countries. More than two-thirds of the value of all arms are sold to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. It is no coincidence that many of the world’s poorest countries have recently experienced armed conflict.

The cost of conflict

In addition to the deaths, injuries and rapes perpetrated with these weapons, the cost of conflict goes deeper still, destroying health and education systems. For example, in northern Uganda, which has been devastated by 20 years of armed conflict, it has been estimated that 250,000 children do not attend school. The war in northern Uganda, which may now be coming finally to an end, has been fuelled by supplies of foreign-made weapons. And, as with so many other wars, the heaviest toll has been on the region’s children.

Children under five are always the most vulnerable to disease, and in a war zone adequate medical care is often not available as hospitals are destroyed and people flee to makeshift camps. Last year, it was estimated that 41 per cent of all deaths in the camps for displaced people in northern Uganda were among children under five.

The world could eradicate poverty in only a few generations were only a fraction of the expenditure on the war business to be spent on peace. An average of $22 billion is spent on arms by countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa every year according to estimates for the US Congress. This sum would have enabled those countries to put every child in school and to reduce child mortality by two thirds by 2015, fulfilling two of the Millennium Development Goals.

A clear and present opportunity

This year, the world has the chance to finally say ‘no’ to the continuing scandal of the unregulated weapons trade. In October, the world’s governments will vote on a resolution at the UN General Assembly to start working towards an Arms Trade Treaty. That Treaty would be based on a simple principle: no weapons for violations of international law. In other words, a ban on selling weapons if there is a clear risk that they will be used to abuse human rights or fuel conflict.

The UN resolution has been put forward by the governments of Australia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. These governments believe that “the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty is one whose time has come”.

I agree. We must end impunity for governments who authorize the supply of weapons when they know there’s a great danger that those weapons will be used for gross human rights abuses. Today, great strides are being made towards ending impunity for war criminals, it cannot be acceptable that their arms suppliers continue to escape punishment.

55 governments, including much of Africa, Latin America and Europe now support an Arms Trade Treaty. It also has widespread popular support: over one million people in over 150 countries have signed the Million Faces Petition supporting the call for such a Treaty.

No longer should the peace business be undermined by the arms business. I call on all governments to put the control of the international arms trade at the top of their agenda.