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Conventional Arms Control and the West


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Despite the challenges of balancing outreach on human rights, good governance and democracy with the pedalling of arms; the arms trade has been a huge money-spinner for the West for decades. The recent trend in the arms trade has been for the increased concentration of military expenditure, i.e. a smaller number of companies and countries manufacture and purchase arms. Generally the manufacturing is done in the West and the purchases by developing countries such as Saudi Arabia and India, reflecting their modernization efforts since the 1990s. According to SIPRI (The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) the top 100 arms-producing companies (excluding China) reported solid growth in 2009, increasing their global sales by $14.8 billion to more than $400 bn - a rise of 8% in real terms. The US behemoth Lockheed Martin is the world`s leading company in terms of arms sales, valued at $33.43bn in 2009, followed closely by Britain`s BAE Systems with sales valued at $33.25bn. BAE came ahead of four US companies – Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon. Companies in the USA or Europe accounted for 92% of recorded sales.

Controlling global defence equipment and sales is a source of huge influence for Western governments and companies with the US intent on ensuring continued dominance of the full spectrum of conventional and asymmetric capabilities for the foreseeable future. It is, at the same time, a corrupt industry, generally hidden from public scrutiny and hence susceptible to inefficiencies and poor value for money decisions. The irony is not lost on all, when, during February, the UK Prime Minister was responding to events in Libya whilst pedalling arms in the Middle East.


This situation is set to change dramatically in the next two decades. Global manufacturing is moving east and it is only a question of time before national companies located in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere challenge the dominance of the current global leading arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and BAE. For several years developing countries have already been the major recipients of arms sales (purchasing some 45% of arms in 2009 compared to the mere 12% sold to developed countries). By 2030 the US would still be the largest military spender – probably responsible for around one third of global defence expenditure - down from around 46% currently. But whereas China is currently only responsible for around 7% of global defence spending and India less than half of that, by 2030 one can expect China and India to collectively balance US defence-related expenditure. Will the emerging countries still buy from the West? Or will the opportunities for diversification of supply to less fickle manufacturers; low prices and no disruption of supply during a crisis prove irresistible to those in need of protection?

The conventional arms trade is currently largely unregulated. The UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) is a voluntary reporting instrument established in 1991 and covers seven major categories of conventional arms: battle tanks, large-calibre artillery, combat vehicles, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships (including submarines) and missiles (including missile launchers). The aim of the Register is to foster regional and international confidence building although, for example, only a small minority of African countries provide information on conventional arms transfers, even in cases where exporting countries (from outside of Africa) report conventional arms transfers to African countries that do participate in UNROCA.


The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (1995) is the sole international instrument that specifically relates to the control of conventional arms and dual-use goods. This instrument seeks to promote more effective transparency and responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies.

Two UN instruments relate to the control of small arms and light weapons (SALW), namely: the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in SALW in All Its Aspects; and the UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition. The latter is the only global, legally binding instrument that addresses the issue of small arms. An annual UN General Assembly SALW ‘Omnibus’ Resolution charts the way forward in terms of the UN program of action.

A UN process, the proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) recently started with the intent to establish a legally binding treaty to govern the international conventional arms trade. The UN will be hosting a conference of states parties to negotiate the detailed terms of an ATT in 2012. The scope and range of a future ATT remains a complicated matter among UN member states, as it will have a direct impact on national sovereignty, most especially the ability of governments to acquire arms to protect and defend themselves. An ATT will also have consequences for arms production and exports, which is a source of income for a number of states, particularly the P5. Given these dynamics, the scope and range of an ATT is likely to be severely limited (if such a treaty is successfully negotiated at all).

There can be little doubt that any debate on ‘upstream’ preventive action needs to engage on the future of arms exports. Even if China does not democratise, the inevitable shift in global arms production to the East could open up an arms bazaar. In a similar manner to which the tobacco industry is targeting the youth bulge in Asia and Africa to create a next generation of drug addicts, so too are arms merchants protecting vested interests and past markets. A prudent approach would be to work in support of a comprehensive ATT and a transparent arms trade reporting system that is mandatory, comprehensive and verifiable in all its aspects.

Written by Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS


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