Debate on Syria hears of 'The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade' [Full text]

(Photo: Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)Andrew Feinstein on Sept. 17, 2015 at the United Nations in Geneva during an event on how to stop the war in Syria during the UN Human Rights Council session.

Key notes from speech given by Andrew Feinstein executive director of Corruption Watch in the UK and author of' The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade' at a meeting on how to stop the war in Syria and Iraq hosted by Caritas Internationalis and Dominicans for Justive and Peace at the United Nations in Geneva on Sept. 17:

"When considering the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, it is important to consider, in addition to the geopolitical and ideological dynamics, the nature and functioning of the global arms trade, that feeds these conflicts, intensifies the massive abuses of human rights, and which undermines the prospects for peace.

I have been investigating and researching the arms trade for over 15 years 15 years, since I was a Member of Parliament for the African National Congress in South Africa and I was stopped from investigating a $10 billion arms deal in which $300 million dollars in bribes was paid. Because of this I resigned.

Scale of trade:

Global military expenditure is estimated to have totaled $1.75 trillion in 2015, that is $250 for every person on the planet.

The small arms trade is worth at least $8.5 billion. Around 4.5/5m firearms are sold in a year and every year about 526,000 violent deaths occur through warfare and murder.

The United States buys and sells almost as many weapons as the rest of the world combined. Other major producers of weaponry include Germany, the UK, France, Russia, Israel and China. These countries sell weapons through their large, government subsidised defence companies.

Last year the biggest buyer of weapons was Saudi Arabia. With the UAE, Turkey, Israel and India also increasing their purchases significantly.

While obviously an important dimension of national defence, a tool of foreign policy (including covert foreign policy) and a contributor (albeit overstated) to the economy, the arms trade, big and small, has additional profound impacts on the world: from the enabling, fuelling and perpetuation of conflict and repression, to the corrosion of democracy and human rights.

Arms deals stretch across a continuum of legality and ethics from the official, or formal trade, to the black market or illicit trade. Grey markets are a combination of the two.

And, in fact, in practice, the boundaries between these three markets are fuzzy. They are often intertwined and dependent on each other. With bribery and corruption commonplace, there are very few arms transactions that do not involve illegality, most often through middlemen or agents.

Many arms dealers who provide services to large defence companies and governments, continue to operate in the black and grey markets. Also arms dealers can see embargoes as a chance to leverage even greater profits.

A study conducted by Joe Roeber, then at Transparency International, calculated that the trade in weapons accounts for almost 40 per cent of all corruption in all global trade. A U.S, Dept. of Commerce study of five years of corrupt transactions involving U.S. businesses found that half were in the defense sector!

So why is the arms trade so susceptible to corruption and other malfeasance?

Roeber argues that the arms trade is hard-wired for corruption. It is built into its structure, into its very DNA. You have contracts worth a vast amount, being decided on by a very small number of people behind a national security imposed veil of secrecy. Perfect conditions for rampant corruption and other illegality

The consequences of this malfeasance and the efforts to conceal it, include the corrosion of democratic institutions and the rule of law in buying and selling countries, greater instability in fragile states, massive opportunity costs especially in relation to socio-economic development and sometimes an undermining of the very national security that the deals are supposed to bolster.

This worsens in times of conflict, where checks and balances seldom exist, time is of the essence, and few questions are asked.

Crucially, those involved in the trade wield enormous political influence through the phenomenon of the revolving door: the movement of people between positions in government, politics, the military, intelligence agencies and defense companies. The consequences of this are a distortion of policy making - not just in the ascendancy of war-making over diplomacy, but also in foreign and economic policy decisions.

A crucial dimension of these arrangements is the link between defence companies, arms dealers and political parties - the trade plays a crucial role in party political funding around the world.

This national security elite not only wields enormous power while they are enriching themselves, but also operate in something of a parallel legal universe, as they seldom face the legal consequences of their often illegal actions.

Of the 502 violations of UN arms embargoes recorded, two resulted in legal action, one in a conviction!

In addition, the trade in weapons suffers remarkable degrees of what is referred to as blowback: the unexpected consequences of any action, which are the opposite of that which the action intended. In the arms trade, blowback results in weapons sold often landing up in the wrong hands or even being turned against the very countries that sold them.

The NATO bombings of Libya, during the late period of the Gaddafi regime, were noteworthy for the reality that the targets were often weapons systems sold to Libya by the very countries undertaking the bombings. The ultimate political blowback is probably Afghanistan, where the multi-billion dollar arming of the Mujahideen was key to the creation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Which brings us to Iraq and Syria:

Arms dealers, such as those I've referred to, are doing a roaring trade, selling to all sides. The world's most powerful nations' failure to clamp down on these dealers (because they use them for covert foreign policy or as intelligence assets) is coming home to roost!

But the strategies of the world's most powerful nations in the region is also at fault. As we discovered in Iraq, Intel in the region is difficult and often faulty. So the alliances between governments and the various groups on the ground are in a state of constant flux. This is fertile ground for regular and inevitable blowback.

So weapons sold or brought into the region, on whichever side in these complicated conflicts, serve, not to aid peace, but primarily to worsen the severity and fatal consequences of the fighting. If we have learned anything from history it is this!

In addition, the objectives of the world's most powerful countries are themselves in a state of constant flux. But arming a few of the key protagonists in the region (which have bought more weapons than any other countries over the past 18 months), is highly unlikely to contribute to peace.

The profound irony of the current situation is that the tidal wave of refugees are going predominantly to the countries that are the biggest suppliers of weapons to the conflicts they are fleeing.

As we stand here today, the world's largest arms fair is taking place in London where most of the protagonists in these conflicts will be re-stocking their armories.

So what can we do?

In general terms, as even the illiberal industrialist, Henry Ford, fathomed: "Show me who makes a profit from war and I'll show you how to stop the war."

We have numerous national, regional and international regulations, but most are barely applied, because of the economic and political interests that would be effected by their rigorous application. Let us demand zero tolerance enforcement, so that no weapons could be sold to any of the protagonists - both directly and indirectly involved in these two conflicts. Let us ensure that individual arms dealers active in the region are locked up if they sell into these countries, regardless of whose intelligence assets they might be.

If there is not the political will to do this, because of the political and economic interests at stake, then let us as citizens of the world say "no more" to the countries involved, starting with the voters and tax payers in each of the world's major weapons makers, whose tax dollars subsidise the arms manufacturers.

For, if we don't stop the flow of weapons into these conflicts the slaughter of 100s of thousands will continue unabated and the tragic march of millions fleeing conflict, human rights abuses and extreme instability, will become a permanent drumbeat of desperation and anguish."

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