As of this writing, about 33 wars are raging across the world and 90% of their casualties are civilians. Over 25 million people have been killed in conflicts since the end of World War II. Yet rather than pursuing real disarmament, governments are spending over $2 billion every single day on armies and weapons. And regimes that abuse human rights are eagerly supplied by the world’s arms producers.

A global Arms Trade Code of Conduct would prohibit the world’s arms producers, virtually all developed countries, from providing military assistance and conventional arms transfers to foreign governments that do not meet certain requirements. These requirements would include democratic governance, respect for human rights, non-involvement in acts of armed aggression, and participation in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, which was established on December 1991.

Conventional arms include more than rifles and submachine guns. Also included are battle tanks, missiles and landmines. The conventional arms category is broad and ambiguous because it groups many types of dangerous weapons together under the category of “conventional” arms! Sensitive military and dual-use technologies are also included, such as telecommunications systems, sensors, lasers and sophisticated satellites that monitor and prevent unforeseen attacks from other countries. Also, military and security training for expertise in the use of such weapons, munitions, sub-components and sensitive technologies are considered conventional arms. All this can be supplied with little restraint to developing countries, some of which disregard democracy and blatantly abuse human rights.

The United States is the world’s number one arms exporter. As a democratic nation, it has a responsibility to take the lead in curbing the weapons trade. In 1996, thirty three nations including the Russian Federation, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (but not China) signed the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Technologies. This agreement was an important step toward the control of the arms trade. The Wassenaar Agreement was set up to contribute to global security and stability by promoting “transparency” of arms exports. The Agreement requires clear and detailed information about arms exports and imports for each country once a year. The problem is that the Wassenaar Arrangement has been signed by only a few nations. The world needs a global Code of Conduct.

In the United States, the Executive Office approves which countries receive military assistance and arms. Once a year, the President gives Congress a list of countries which will receive arms shipments from U.S. manufacturers. All U.S. arms transfer decisions take into account the multiple U.S. interests involved in each arms transfer. Sales are approved by the Executive Office on a case-by-case basis. All U.S. arms transfer decisions take into account certain criteria including; “Appropriateness of the transfer in responding to legitimate U.S. and recipient security needs”, “Consistency with international agreements and arms control initiatives”, and “The human rights, terrorism and proliferation record of the recipient and the potential for misuse of the export in question” (Criteria for Decision-making on U.S. Arms Exports, The White House, Feb. 17, 1995).

Nevertheless, 85% of U.S. arms transfers during 1990-95 went to the nations that did not meet the proposed Code’s criteria. In fact, they went to the Middle East (Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Israel and Lebanon) and to 43 of the 53 countries in Africa, the continent with the most violent conflicts. In President Clinton’s first term, over two-thirds of all arms Wes agreements with the Third World went to dictatorships which are still violating human rights. In 19917 Clinton approved $83 billion in military assistance to dictatorships, an all-time record even during the Cold War years.

More than half of U.S. weapons sales are now being financed by taxpayers instead of foreign arms purchasers. During fiscal year 1996, the government spent more than $7.9 billion to help U.S. companies secure just over $12 billion in agreements for new international arms sales. The largest single subsidy program for U.S. weapons exporters is the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program. Another Pentagon’s subsidy is the Defense Export Loan Guarantee (DELG) fund. Furthermore the Pentagon has also been leasing or giving away massive quantities of highly capable U.S. weapons that have been declared “surplus” relative to current needs. In addition to Pentagon programs, other agencies provide subsidies for sales of weapons. After the Pentagon’s FMF program, the second largest subsidy comes from the Economic Support Funds (ESF) program administered by the Agency for International Development. The “Dual Use” Funding of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) is another source of funding for military exports. In addition the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are working hard to increase the Pentagon spending encouraged by the “Big Three’ weapons contractors — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.

Besides the United States, there are other countries that export conventional arms to countries violating human rights. France, for example, sent arms to Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Rwanda. Human Rights Watch and media reports indicate that the French government continued to supply arms to Rwanda for at least two months after international news reports of genocide became public knowledge and after the imposition of an international arms embargo on May 17, 1994. Later, during hearings in March-June 1998, Bernard Debr√©, who was France’s Minister of Cooperation in 1994, acknowledged that the French government had continued to supply arms to the Rwandan government “ten days after the massacres started,” explaining lamely that this was “because France didn’t immediately realize what was happening.”

Sales of conventional arms bolster repressive dictatorships at the expense of the poor. In Togo and Rwanda, populations are crying out for schools and doctors, not for guns and military training. In July 1999 more than 100 bodies were found along the coastline of West Africa just after Togo’s June elections, during which opposition party members allegedly were shot and dumped into the sea. Their bodies washed up on the shores of neighboring Benin. They were killed with conventional arms, in this case, rifles or hand guns. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the AK-47 assault rifle can be purchased on the black market for as little as $6.

Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Laureate form East Timor”, was affected personally by the danger of arms sales. In August 1977 his 21-year old sister, Maria Ortencia, along with at least 20 young children in a remote village in East Timor, were killed by Indonesian Air Force pilots. His sister and these children were only a few of more than 200,000 civilians who were killed in East Timor from December 1975, when Indonesia invaded and illegally annexed the newly independent land, to 1979. Indonesia waged this war — and continues to wage this war — using an arsenal of weapons imported from the United States and Europe.

Nevertheless, there are still some people who think that an Arms Trade Code of Conduct is not necessary. Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN), for example, believes that a Code of Conduct “hamstrings the President of the United States in his conducting of foreign policy.” He argues, “If anybody believes that a country that wants to buy weaponry is going to not buy it simply because they cannot buy them from the United States, they are just barking up the wrong tree.” Congressman Mat Salmon (R-AZ) declared that the Code of Conduct is “not about human rights, and is not about foreign policy. This … is about a philosophical difference that exists within the Congress.” I wonder if Jose Ramos-Horta believes that the Arms Trade Code of Conduct is only a big philosophical pillow-fight in Congress!

There is a boomerang effect on U.S. interests, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) explained, citing that the U.S. spends twice as much to fight against countries like Yugoslavia, which was initially armed by U.S. arms exporters. McKinney is the Sponsor of the Code of Conduct bill (HR2269), a bill now pending (Nov 99) in the House International Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee. (Contact your legislator)

There are a growing number of people who agree with the establishment of a global Arms Trade Code of Conduct, people who have a very realistic view of the world. Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner, argues against a “military-dominated mind-set that prevailed throughout the Cold War.” He also states, “It is embarrassing that five permanent members of the UN Security Council are responsible for the largest quantity of arms sales to the developing world. The very countries that should be maintaining world peace and security are the ones most responsible for promoting war and insecurity by producing and selling weapons.”

I believe that the United States now has an unprecedented opportunity to take the lead in this international effort. In my opinion, if the U.S. leads the way for the establishment of a Code of Conduct, other arms exporters will follow.

In 1994 alone, the U.S. taxpayer paid more to subsidize weapons sales than they paid for elementary and secondary education programs. The original meaning of the word “subsidize” derives from the Latin word subsidium which means to help each other. To spend billions in weapons subsidies and billions more to fight against soldiers armed with these same weapons is simply bad policy. I agree with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who pointed out, “All of us whose nations sell such weapons, or through whose nations the traffic flows, bear some responsibility for turning a blind eye to the destruction they cause. And all of us have it in our power to do something in response.” U.S. foreign policy should mirror this statement and reduce weapons sales in order to establish programs that will benefit not only U.S. citizens but also citizens of the global community.

* Stefania Capodaglio was the 1999 Ruth Floyd Intern in International Law and Human Rights at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation headquarters in Santa Barbara, California. Presently she is completing a Political Science degree at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy.