The United States once again holds first place as the world’s biggest arms sellerso noted the recent report of the Congressional Research Service, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, delivered annually to Congress. Here is a troubling distinction indeed, given the fact that the global proliferation of arms continues to fuel conflicts rife with human rights abuses.
The C.R.S. report makes no comment on the ethical implications of our number one position. In other reports by arms control advocacy organizations, though, some of these implications are spelled out. A study in February 2000 by the Council for a Liveable World Education Fund, for instance, called Human Rights and Weapons: Records of Selected U.S. Arms Clients, observes that a number of the worst human rights abusing countries have been receiving American-made weapons. It is worth noting that the study is based partly on the State Department’s yearly Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
Among Middle Eastern countries, Turkey exemplifies some of the difficulties inherent in our arms sales procedures. For over 10 years the Turkish government has been in armed conflict against the Kurdish people in its southeastern provincesa population that has, in addition, been denied basic human rights in terms of politics, culture and language. Torture and imprisonment of dissidents have been common. Yet in 1998, according to the council’s report, the United States delivered nine F-16’s and a variety of missiles to Turkeywhich, in addition, may be given authorization in 2001 to receive a large shipment of attack helicopters. The situation in Egypt is similar. Security forces there, along with police and prison guards, have committed numerous human rights abuses. Nevertheless, Egypt has been permitted to purchase millions of dollars in weaponry, including Harpoon, Hawk and Hellfire missiles.
The administration’s stance is that by selling to Egypt, Turkey and other countries with poor human rights records, the United States gains a measure of control over their militaries and can thus push for more democratic procedures. But advocates dispute this claim. Tamar Gabelnick, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project of the Federation of American Scientists told America that such leverage is dubious when it comes to correcting abusive behaviors. The goal of selling more and more weapons, she said, always wins out over the goal of promoting democracy and human rights. In the Middle East, she added, the United States is boosting sales by presenting each country with an exaggerated risk assessment, a policy that contributes to the arms race in the region.
Light arms are also a source of concern. Thomas Cardamone Jr., executive director of the council, pointed out that these are especially liable to be used in human rights violations because they are cheap and easily transportable. In this regard, at least, helpful steps have been made through the Leahy Human Rights Law. It originally targeted Colombia, where a number of military units had been using small arms abusively. In the case of the $1.3 billion in military aid recently approved for Colombia, Mr. Cardamone said that the law is meant to serve as a filter through which that aid is delivered, to prevent equipment from falling into the hands of military units with histories of abuses. Given Colombia’s poor record on human rights, the dangers are evident.
Another positive step is the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers Act. Introduced in 1995, the bill would establish four criteria for military assistance and arms transfers to foreign governments: a democratic form of government, respect for citizens’ basic rights, non-aggression against other states and full participation in the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms. In an international code of conduct passed by Congress last year, the administration would be required to observe those criteria on a multilateral basis. Not surprisingly, however, this has been fiercely opposed by the arms industryprimarily through its chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, the Aerospace Industries Association. Its enactment into law would represent fewer sales and therefore significant losses in profits.
Profits, in fact, remain a driving force for the industry, set as it is on increasing arms exports as much as possibleoften with the assistance of the U.S. government. Mr. Cardamone noted that so-called government security officers are stationed in U.S. embassies around the world. They work with militaries in foreign countries to find out their requirements and desires, he said, and then they try to match these with American products.
Five years ago, in their pastoral reflection, Sowing Weapons of War, the U.S. bishops wrote that the United States needs to put its energies into building peace, not supplying arms and thereby become a leader in reducing the arms trade. Our preeminent position in this trade, however, shows how far we are from seriously embracing these objectives.