The bizarre confusion of morals in the global arms trade was brought to light late last week when the U.S. Department of Defense went on a PR offensive to justify their buying attack helicopters from a Russian firm responsible for arming the Syrian regime and enabling mass atrocities. The Obama administration is giving Rosoboronexport a contract with options to grow into a $925 million transaction. The purchase order is to outfit the Afghan military. “I don’t think we’re linking the two (issues),” said Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby in explaining the inconsistency of enriching the merchants of Syria’s death. That, however, is the point. No tyranny can last without the willing complicity of the free world and the arms trade perfectly illustrates this.

From China to Cuba and from Belarus to Vietnam, autocratic leaders have been supported by the United States, Britain, France, Sweden, Spain, Brazil, Israel, and many other Western nations that purport to stand for freedom. This is especially true with regard to the arms trade. What do the dealmakers gain? More than one-and-a-half trillion dollars in earnings through the sale of arms. How do they get away with it? Iron clad secrecy and a very particular set of rules.

Arms Trade

In the rich exposé The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30), Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of parliament in post-apartheid South Africa, reveals the underbelly of state-sanctioned and underground arms trade that spans across several continents. Few books on the global arms trade have been published but none are as incisive and comprehensive as Feinstein’s The Shadow World (the last major work was The Arms Bazaar published more than 30 years ago). Feinstein examines everything from the South African arms deals with the UK, Sweden and Germany to the activities of U.S. armament companies that secure major contracts through bribery, political campaign contributions, and blackmail. Feinstein challenges the reader to consider whether we should “demand greater transparency and accountability from politicians, the military, intelligence agencies, investigators and prosecutors, manufacturers and dealers,” and by the end of this book, many readers will agree that greater transparency is necessary.

The Rwandan genocide is a “tragic exemplar of arms directly enabling and exacerbating conflict,” according to Feinstein, where weapons inflamed a latent civil tension into one of the bloodiest moments of the 20th century. Ethnic friction arose when colonial Belgium built an alliance with Tutsi leaders, a ruling class that was overthrown by Hutus in 1959. The Belgians then switched their alliance to the new Hutu regime, and by the time they left in 1962, Rwandan society was severed by ethnic conflict. Before the mass killings started, Rwanda’s then-president Juvénal Habyarimana had begun amassing arms from around the world. South Africa’s state-owned armaments company, Armscor, supplied $5.9m in weapons, and China exported tens of thousands of machetes to the Hutu government. Between October 1990 and June 1992, Rwanda also bought anywhere from $12m to $26m of arms from Egypt. It was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egypt’s foreign secretary, and later U.N. secretary-general, who brokered and approved the arms sale to Rwanda. The deal was done in secret and the weapons were shipped to Rwanda packaged as “relief aid.” Consider that again: the Secretary General of the United Nations had previously brokered the arms deal that ultimately prepped the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in a world tragedy the U.N. was set up to prevent. Is it any wonder that when the Rwandan genocide began the U.N. turned its back and pretended nothing was happening? A new documentary film U.N. Me addresses this tragic example of U.N. corruption (disclosure: I am credited as “Executive Producer” of the film). So big was the opportunity that preceded the Rwandan genocide that few world players were left out. The Anglophobic France, for instance, saw English-speaking Ugandan-backed Tutsis as a threat, and believed their arms sale would be an opportunity to expand French influence in Africa.

On April 6, 1994, a missile shot down the plane carrying president Habyarimana, officially starting the ethnic cleansing of Tutsis. It was only in May 1994, a month after the genocide began, that the UN placed an arms embargo on the country. The embargo did not mean that Rwanda stopped buying arms—it simply meant they relied on private gunrunners. One UK-based company was successful in breaking the arms embargo on Rwanda’s behalf. In just over three months, 800,000 people were slaughtered, at least half of whom were children; Up to 250,000 women were raped, 67 percent of whom contracted AIDS. For hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, schools and football stadiums had become executions grounds where firearms and grenades were used for the highest kill-rate possible, and most of the arms used were exclusively from the West.

The West, as hard as it tries to obscure it with PR campaigns, has continually enabled dictators—Charles Taylor and Muammar Gaddafi are recent examples—to commit mass atrocities, and there is no sign of decline in business for arms manufacturers and dealers. One can expect tyrannies like Putin’s or Chavez’s to take pride in the supply of weapons to monsters like Assad or terror groups such as Spain’s ETA or the Colombian FARC but it is unconscionable when free nations supply tyrannies with the very weapons they will use to violate human rights. Arms, in the end, are not evil, they are neutral—what isn’t neutral is whoever wields them.

Amidst rumors of slush funds and kickbacks, the stock prices of entities like BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin have increased parallel to government spending. Even if corporations are watched more carefully—though that is unlikely as most are tightly connected to governments, heavily influencing elections through legal contributions and often covertly serving geopolitical interests—there are other means for illegitimate leaders to procure weapons. Countries like Iran who can no longer officially buy weapons from the U.S. due to severance of diplomatic ties, find underground private dealers to augment their American arms infrastructure from past dealings. Surprisingly, few individual gun runners face jail time because of weak international laws and relationships with state intelligence agencies. Of 502 violations of U.N. arms embargos only one has resulted in a conviction. The trade in weapons, Feinstein says, is less regulated than the trade in bananas. It follows that the arms trade accounts for 40% of the world’s corruption.

It is important to consider that the edifice of the world’s human rights violations is underpinned by the arms trade. Will this shadow world ever see the light of day? Feinstein is not hopeful. Corrective action begins with free societies and public exposure.

Feinstein’s Oslo Freedom Forum talk is a great start.

(Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.)

(Photo © Amnesty International)