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Light in the Dark Tunnel of the Arms Trade



March 10, 1999

LONDON- Arms deals gone wrong are leaving quite a trail. The murder of Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme? The murder of Andre Cools, the socialist politician in Belgium, whose party colleague Willy Claes had to resign as secretary-general of NATO, caught up in the investigation and questions that followed? A British journalist found hanging in a hotel room in Chile, eight years ago? And now the long and tortuous saga of Jonathan Aitken, the former British minister of state for defense procurement. "If there is a more serious case of corruption in post-war British politics we would be interested to know about it", editorialised the Guardian last week, the paper which exposed the million dollar racket.

All these, bar the last, have serious question marks. Nothing has ever been proved in court. In Palme's case we only have the circumstantial evidence that he was the front man for a controversial deal between the Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors, and India. We certainly know that huge bribes were paid to the Indians and it could be that competitors or, more likely, their agents, wanted Bofors' trump card, Palme, the friend of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, out of the way. In Belgium, thanks to inept and slow-footed police work, all the leads seem to have dried up. And with the case of the British investigative journalist, Jonathan Moyle, we only have the verdict of a British inquest which concluded he was "unlawfully killed" and a book that marshals evidence that accuses the head of public relations, the late Raul Montecinos, at Cardoen, a Chilean firm that was planning to convert American civilian helicopters into gunships for sale to Iraq. A new Chilean police investigation into the case continues.

Maybe all that two paragraphs like the above do is to give one or two readers, perhaps even the odd senior government official, sweaty palms for a moment and then the defenses come into play: Arms sales are an unfortunate necessity, a currency of diplomacy, a means of ensuring local balances of power, of lowering unit production costs and unemployment in the defense sector and so on. For a short while, in 1991-92, it looked as if policy makers had momentarily seen through this. Editorial pages in papers across America, Britain, France and even Russia criticized the role that their governments had played in taming Saddam Hussein. Politicians and legislatures around the world spoke out against the dangers of commercially-driven, often secretive, arms sales. Today much of this is forgotten. Attention has been tightly focussed on Iraq's attempt to build weapons of mass destruction. Little is said about the vast array of tanks, planes, howitzers, missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and naval ships that enabled Saddam to mount his invasion of Kuwait in the first place. That these all came from deals with the West and Russia, barely a word.

Arms sales, mainly from the West, have continued to grow over the last five years, despite the end of the Cold War. The U.S. and the European Union account for 80% of global sales.

"If we don't sell (fill in with the weapon) to (fill in with the country) someone else will." This has been the justification that supposedly trumps all the arguments against. What has not been considered until very recently is a third way--the U.S. and Europe barring their companies from arms sales and using their considerable political and economic clout to encourage other allies to follow suit.

There are some hopeful signs. Last week the treaty banning land mines came into effect. Even though, after much prevarication, the U.S. has decided not to join because, it argues, it still needs land-mines on the South-North Korean border--no one doubts that peer pressure from its Western allies, all signatories, will bring America into the fold sooner rather than later. Even now the U.S. is committed to terminating use and sales elsewhere.

The next big step is to give life to the codes of conduct on arms sales that are being actively pushed by legislators on both sides of the Atlantic. The international effort has been orchestrated by Oscar Arias, the former Costa Rican president who won the Nobel peace prize for negociating an end to the Nicaraguan civil war. He never fails to point out that 18 of the world's poorest countries spend more on their militaries than on education and health combined.

In June 1977, the U.S. House of Representatives, despite persistent opposition from the White House, voted approval of a code. Although less stringent than its early drafts, it is an important first step, requiring that would-be buyers satisfy certain standards on democracy, human rights and non-aggression. (According to the lobby group, The Demilitarization of Democracy, 85% of U.S. transfers during 1990-95 went to states that would not have met such criteria.)

In the European Union a similar effort has made more progress. Last May foreign ministers of the European Union agreed in principle to a code of conduct, although, inevitably, it was a watered down version of what Nordic members had proposed.

Slowly, much too slowly, notions of responsibility and restraint are percolating into the orifices of Western decision makers. But the arms sales industry is used to playing hard ball and its rogue elements will stop at nothing to get their way. Corruption, even an occasional murder, are tools of the trade. Their day to day lobbying powers are formidable. No wonder that governments have shown an enormous capacity for fudging arms limiting declarations made in the past, and, doubtless, they will continue to succumb to these formidable pressures. The fight to control arms sales has barely begun.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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