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Advocating for transparency in the global arms trade

November 12, 2011

by Hakeem Ayinde, MD

I attended, with Cathey Falvo of PSR, New York City, a recent special event at the United Nations that addressed Transparency in Global Arms Trade. Having attended the last Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) PrepCom meeting in July as an IPPNW delegate, I found the topic very pertinent and also enlightening. Particularly interesting was the speech by the keynote speaker, Michael Klare, who is a professor of peace and world security studies at the Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Professor Klare discussed the relationship between oil and other natural resources, and the international arms trade. He explained how the pursuit of natural resources leads to an increase in arms sales, pointing out that a country like Saudi Arabia, for example, is the largest oil exporter, and equally the largest arms importer. These resource-rich countries are usually courted for their oil or other resources in exchange for arms by the major arms exporting countries. These arms exporters would forge relationships with the oil-rich nations wherein they offer aid, diplomatic support, arms transfers etc, in order to gain more influence and access to the resources.

Conversely, the Professor also argued that the presence of natural resources also causes countries to move to acquire more arms. This would be useful as a deterrent to neighboring countries and to secure their borders or as a measure to control insurgent groups within the country. Countries like Libya and Syria readily come to mind for the latter reason. Additionally, the pursuit of arms by resource-rich countries also affects social and economic development in these countries, as funds may be diverted from development programs to the purchase of weapons.

The reasons aforementioned beg for increased transparency in transnational arms transfer, which would improve international peace and security and also help us better understand the dynamics between the pursuit of natural resources and arms trade.

Also interesting was Magda Coss, an investigative journalist with significant experience researching violence in Latin America. She brought attention to the effects of armed violence in Latin America, which accounts for an alarming 42% of the world’s firearm-related deaths, from between 40 and 65 million existing firearms in the region. A major obstacle to her work, she believes, is the difficulty in obtaining data on firearms traffic in these countries. This may sometimes be due to censorship by government, but more often, it is because the governments themselves do not have the information.

She urged a stronger role for the media in raising awareness on the consequences of firearms and also to expose the corruption and faults in institutions that promote proliferation of firearms.

Ms Coss also advocated for more transparency and responsibility on the part of arms exporters in arms transfers to developing countries, as the impact of this is palpable.

The failed operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), nicknamed ‘Fast and Furious’, in which arms were introduced into Mexico in order to track them to their destination highlighted the irresponsibility of government and a lack of transparency. The firearms only showed up after they were used to kill people.

Mr Tobias Bock of Transparency International’s Defense and Security program got a cheer from the audience when he introduced the newly revamped UN Register of Global Reported Arms Trade which now includes small arms. The website has been made more user-friendly, and the information on arms trade more accessible. The site also conspicuously showed discrepancies in information reported by some arms exporters and importers. It is possible that the importing countries underreported the actual number of arms imported. This is problematic because defense budgets are usually shrouded in secrecy, and thus it would be difficult to verify the actual volume of arms transferred.

Other speakers at the event were Mark Bromley, senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms transfer program, and Jeff Abramson, former deputy director at the Arms Control Association and current coordinator of the Control Arms Coalition Secretariat. Jeff offered his opinion that transparency in reporting small arms trade is a great challenge due to the proliferation of such arms worldwide, but it must still be pursued.

Overall, the seminar was highly educative and it exposed certain challenges that may be further discussed while we push for the adoption of an effective Arms trade Treaty.

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