Codes of Conduct and the Legal Trade in Light Weapons

One of the greatest threats to human security today is the trade of small arms by both organizations and states. What can be done about this? Greg Puley writes in support of a multi-national agreement that will curtail this trade.

by Greg Puley

The adoption earlier this year of a European Code of Conduct on the arms trade and the consideration of similar legislation in the United States are encouraging signs for those concerned about the social devastation caused by small arms violence. Properly enforced codes of conduct would go a long way toward ensuring that lethal weaponry does not find its way into the hands of those who would use it for aggression or human rights abuses. As an international NGO coalition has begun to take shape around the light weapons issue, codes of conduct have been at the center of discussion.

Since the signing of the landmines treaty in 1997, much international attention has been focused on carrying the momentum generated by the "Ottawa Process" through to a concerted international movement to combat the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. However, the problem presented by light weapons proliferation is more complicated than that presented by anti-personnel landmines. It affects more regions of the world and is underpinned by stronger political and economic interests. While there was a general international consensus that the use of landmines was illegitimate and that therefore an outright ban ought to be pursued, there is no such agreement on the use of light weapons. Every state in the world uses them for external defence and internal policing.

The actors involved in the light weapons trade are also more numerous and more difficult to control than those involved in the manufacture and sale of landmines. It is estimated that today there exist about 3000 firms producing handguns and other portable firearms, operating in over 50 different countries. Small arms and light weapons are thought to account for 80 - 90 percent of the deaths in violent conflict today. The vast majority of their victims are civilians, and a growing number of these are children. Controlling the trade in light weapons, then, must be an indispensable part of any concerted effort to advance human security around the world.

However, attempts at international arms control have major economic, political, and structural hurdles to overcome. Primary among these are the economic interests involved in what has become one of the most important sectors of international commerce. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been a common economic strategy of major industrial states to finance their indigenous arms industries by selling as many weapons as possible abroad. This vigorous exploitation of external markets, it was thought, would support domestic research and production programs, as well as providing jobs and investment in the national economy. It would also help prop up friendly regimes during the long years of the Cold War. Even if recipient governments or groups could not afford the proposed transfer, financial aid or generous credit programs were commonly furnished in the name of maintaining a solid domestic industrial base.

Arms Transfers to undemocratic regims

This aggressive approach to weapons sales has had several disastrous consequences for the security and well-being of millions of people around the world. One has been the creation of permanent wartime economies in the richest nations of the West, who spend phenomenal amounts of public money producing extravagant, socially unproductive military goods. Another has been an enormous flow of weapons from the developed to the underdeveloped world, accompanied by an enormous flow of debt in the opposite direction. In 1995, arms transfers to the Third World totaled over $21 billion U.S., 85% of which originated with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. And the trend toward militarization through trade has been consistently worsening since the end of the Cold War. In the last 10 years, military spending by nations in the lowest international income group has increased by 19%. In the same period, the United States alone has increased its rate of transfers to Third World governments by more than half. Nor is there much restraint shown based of political or civil conditions in the recipient country. By the State Department's own calculations, 84% of American arms transfers to the third world go to undemocratic regimes. Most other major exporting nations do not do much better.

The direct cost in human suffering of this indiscriminate cascade of armaments is obvious. One need only consider the over forty million people worldwide who have died at the hands of conventional weapons in the last fifty years. Or make a list of the human rights abusers (including Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko and Gen. Suharto) armed through transfers from industrialized countries in the same period. Or reflect on the irony of recent American excursions in Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, and Panama, where the U.S. Armed Forces faced enemy troops bearing weapons provided or financed by their own government.

social costs

What receives considerably less attention, however, are the indirect consequences of the massive diversion of resources brought about by large scale arms purchasing programs in the poorest nations of the world. The $191 billion dollars spent by developing countries on their armed forces each year exceeds their total expenditures for health and education combined. This amounts to four times the total bilateral and multilateral assistance they receive annually. In both its direct and indirect effects, then, the worldwide trade in and proliferation of conventional arms and light weapons represents nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. "When I am criticized for being an arms dealer," said French Minister for Armaments Hughes de l'Estoile, "I always think that when I sign a contract I can guarantee, for instance, 10,000 jobs over three years." The French are not alone in their reasoning - the same argument is used in almost all arms-exporting nations to justify transfers which by any ethical standard would be unthinkable. Germany has used it to supply the government of Indonesia in its repression of the East Timorese; the United States to aid Turkey in its brutal campaign against separatist Kurds; the Netherlands to help prolong an extended conflict in Chad.

This frenzied exporting is the inevitable result of an arms industry addicted to export and driven by profit. With such sums of money at stake and so many willing suppliers, governments can consistently retreat into the reassuring argument that if they do not provide arms to a questionable recipient, somebody else will. By these strange twists of logic, participation in an arms trade wedded to market economics and divorced from any significant moral restraint has come to be understood as vital to the national interests of many of the richest nations on the planet. Conveniently, the consequences in human misery brought about by this trade are suffered almost exclusively by the poorest.

The central purpose of a code of conduct governing the arms trade is to alleviate this misery by establishing the moral benchmarks which are so conspicuously absent from the current system. By requiring that clear humanitarian standards be met by any proposed arms recipient, codes of conduct are meant to avoid the transfer of weapons to known aggressors and human rights violators. Though the Code proposed to the U.S. Congress by Cynthia McKinney and Mark Hatfield in 1995 was the first presented in a major democratic forum, the European Union became the first to adopt one as law when it ratified its Code of Conduct on Armaments in May of this year.

The European Code of Conduct is meant as a more comprehensive, regulatory regime to replace the relatively weak "common export criteria" established in 1991 and 1992. The Code stipulates that a proposed arms transfer should not take place if it would provoke or prolong tensions in the recipient country, or if there exists a clear risk that the arms be used for an act of international aggression. It also prohibits transfers in situations where there is a clear risk that they will be used for internal repression, and specifies major human rights abuses such as the use of torture, prolonged and arbitrary detention and summary executions as automatic grounds for the denial of an export license. Because of the Code's relatively recent adoption, it has yet to be seen how effective it will be in restraining European arms exports to zones of conflict or regimes with questionable human rights records.

weaknesses in the code

Although the European Code of Conduct has generally met with applause from the international NGO community, many concerned parties have pointed out that it contains several key weaknesses. Chief among these is that the Code does not require that recipient states show full respect for international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions. Nor does it require that they participate in the U.N. register of conventional arms. NGOs have also criticized the relatively weak transparency measures established by the Code, and its failure to adequately address the problem of third party brokering.

Some of these weaknesses in the European Code become particularly conspicuous when it is compared to the original U.S. version proposed to the House of Representatives by McKinney and Hatfield. Their code does contain strong humanitarian criteria, as well as requiring that the recipient state be a democracy and participates in the U.N. Register. A note of caution must be expressed, however, in comparing a ratified, working European arrangement to a U.S. proposal which has yet to be adopted into law.

In addition, the U.S. Code movement is faced with several important problems of its own. Primary among these is that Congressional leaders have insisted on a provision allowing the President to ask for a "national security" exemption, which would override the Code's criteria and allow the transfer of weapons to an otherwise ineligible government. This provision even allows the President to carry out such a transfer in complete secrecy if she or he judges it to be in the national interest to do so. And even with this enormous loophole, the Code has until now been unable to overcome the opposition of the arms industry and of hawkish politicians. Though passed overwhelmingly by the House, it was recently left off of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1998 - 1999 and therefore out of the current body of U.S. law.

The arguments used in the U.S. and elsewhere in opposition to national codes of conduct are the same ones that have been used for decades to justify widespread and indiscriminate arms sales. The tired assertion that immoral transfers are bound to made anyway does not excuse states from taking unilateral action to restrain their own questionable trade policies. It does, however, point to the need for concerted international action to be taken. For in the absence of strong multilateral measures, those who would be denied arms transfers by states operating under strong codes of conduct could simply take their business elsewhere. And in a post Cold War environment marked by a number of newly independent states flush with weapons and desperate for cash, they would not have to look far.

laureates' code

Though such an international regime is certainly a long way from being realized, at least one concrete move has been made in this direction. In May of 1997 Dr. Oscar Arias and seven of his fellow Nobel Laureates officially proposed an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. The Code seeks to extend to the international realm the strong democratic, human rights and humanitarian criteria which the McKinney bill would attach to U.S. arms transfers. It would demand not only participation in the U.N. Register for conventional arms, but also strong opposition to terrorism, and a commitment to regional security and stability. The Commission of Nobel Laureates is currently working to gain international grassroots support for their initiative, with an eye to presenting the Code to the General Assembly of the United Nations. To date, seventeen Laureates have endorsed the Code, including the Dalai Lama, Elie, Wiesel, Desmond Tutu, and last years winner, landmines campaigner Jody Williams.

In addition to guarding against the direct misuse of weapons, the International Code sponsored by the Laureates Commission also seeks to address the indirect consequences of the arms trade caused by the massive diversion of resources to military spending. Several provisions of the Code reflect this emphasis. One requires that recipient governments' total military spending not exceed their combined budget for health and education. Another, aimed at preventing disastrous regional arms races, mandates that transfers must not introduce significantly new levels of military technology to a region, or provide a government with more weapons than could reasonably be considered necessary for self defence. By demanding that priority be given to social over military goals, the Laureates' Code is aimed at alleviating the conditions of exclusion and social deprivation which so often give rise to violent conflict in the first place. It envisions a new approach to international security which places human development before military power.

Properly enforced codes of conduct do promise effective moral controls on an industry which until now has been operating primarily under the dictates of profit and the enhancement of national power. They would help ensure that the reckless pursuit of these goals in the developed world would no longer result in the funneling of deadly weaponry to regions of poverty and instability.

However, the massive scope and complexity of the light weapons problem means that codes by themselves are not enough. For one thing, they deal only with the legal arms trade, when it is known that a sizable proportion of light weapons transfers are carried out extra-legally. A related problem is that presented by the massive arsenal of small arms and light weapons already in existence. Codes of conduct need to be supplemented by vigorous post-conflict collection and buyback schemes designed to take weapons out of circulation before they can be recycled and used again to wreak still more havoc.

Finally, and most importantly, codes of conduct deal only with the supply side of the light weapons issue. Although the Nobel Laureates' Code does take some welcome steps towards redefining security in terms of human development, simply restricting the arms trade is not a sufficient means of alleviating the humanitarian crisis caused by small arms violence. In order for the problem to be truly addressed, attention needs to be focused on ending the systemic deprivation of basic human needs which causes recourse to violence to be taken in the first place. Therefore, while codes of conduct hold out the promise of a more ethical arms trade, they should be considered as only one element of a broader, more ambitious strategy to combat the worldwide plague of small arms violence.

Greg Puley is with Project Ploughshares

"The Moral Challenge of Globalization: Principles for Human Development"


In India and Pakistan, in Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa, in the former Yugoslavia and many other nations, bloated military budgets have led to profound deprivation and human suffering. Unfortunately, half of the world's governments dedicate more resources to defence than to health programs. Such distortions in national budgets contribute to poverty and retard human development. War, and the preparation for war, is one of the greatest obstacles to human progress, fostering a vicious cycle of arms buildups, violence, and poverty.

In order to understand the true human cost of militarism, as well as the true impact of unregulated arms sales in the world today, we must understand that war is not just an evil act of destruction, it is a missed opportunity for humanitarian investment. It is a crime against every child who calls out for food rather than for guns, and against every mother who demands simple vaccinations rather than million dollar fighters. The $780 billion dollars spent on weapons and soldiers in 1997 constitutes a global tragedy. If we channeled just $40 billion dollars each year away from armies and into anti-poverty programs, in ten years all of the world's population would enjoy basic social services - education, health care and nutrition, potable water, and sanitation. Another $40 billion dollars each year over ten years would provide each person on this planet with an income level above the poverty line for their country. Shockingly, this life-giving $80 billion dollars in annual funds would represent only ten percent of world defence expenditures.

We must ensure that forgiven debt money is not spent on more deadly weaponry; a reinvigorated debt relief effort should reward countries that reduce their military spending and devote funds to human development.

We urgently need to work together as an international community to limit the availability and spread of deadly weaponry. Canadians have already been at the forefront of a crucial international step in this direction, playing an important role in the creation of the Ottawa treaty on landmines which was signed last year. However, the international community needs to carry the success of the landmines initiatives through to other, more comprehensive arms control initiatives. For this reason, I have advocated an International Code of Conduct to control all conventional arms transfers.

Any decision to export arms should take into account several characteristics pertaining to the country of final destination. The recipient country must endorse democracy, defined in terms of free and fair elections, the rule of law, civilian control over the military forces, and abide by accepted conventions on torture, civil rights, and international aggression. In addition, all nations would be required to report their arms purchases to the United Nations.

But I am not alone in supporting in International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. Nobel Peace Laureates Elie Wiesel, Betty Williams, and the Dalai Lama stood with me in presenting the Code last year. So did José Ramos-Horta, Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Since then Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rigoberta Menchu have joined this impractical group. As have Lech Walesa, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Mairead Maguire, Norman Borlaug, Joseph Rotblat, Jody Williams, and one of last year's laureates, John Hume. In all, seventeen winners of the Nobel Peace prize have endorsed the Code. But more importantly, thousands of individuals, groups, and community leaders have expressed their belief that a Code of Conduct is not only a morally sound idea, but also a politically necessary agreement.

Lobbyists in the arms industry will do their best to see that codes of conduct on arms transfers will be weak and full of loopholes. We must generate the kind of popular pressure that will force elected representatives to strong and resolute action.

Excerpts from Dr. Oscar Arias's lecture, "The Moral Challenge of Globalization: Principles for Human Development"

Peace Magazine Summer 1999

Peace Magazine Summer 1999, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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