A responsibility to promote worldwide cooperation toward peace and security is not the only role that the permanent-five veto-wielding powers in the United Nations Security Council have in common. Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States are also the world’s largest exporters of conventional weapons to developing countries.
The export of weapons by the so-called P5 countries is not new, yet recent data published by the Congressional Research Service on the global arms trade shows that arms-transfer agreements totaling $65 billion in 2015 were committed to developing countries, “where most analysts agree that the potential for the outbreak of regional military conflicts currently is greatest,” the new data-based report said.
The 2015 total reflected a major decrease from 2014 of $79 billion, but fluctuations happen from year to year, contend some disarmament specialists, so the reduction may not indicate an overall trend. Moreover, international growth in arms sales has been slow since the 2008 worldwide recession.
The report of the Congressional Research Service, which provides expertise to the US Congress, includes “all categories of weapons and ammunition, military spare parts, military construction, military assistance and training programs, and all associated services.”
In 2015, the US ranked first in arms-transfer agreements — weapons deals — with developing nations, worth $26.7 billion, or 41 percent of such sales. For the first time, France outpaced Russia in its number of deals in 2015, securing $15.2 billion. The report suggested France’s agreements were based on economic decisions rather than on politically motivated ones.
The report noted, for example, France’s deal with Qatar for the Rafale fighter jet and missiles valued at $7 billion; India’s purchase of combat aircraft from France; and the latter’s new contract with Egypt for frigates worth about $1.4 billion.
The report, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008-2015,” defines developing nations as all countries except the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and those in Europe. The report tracks government-to-government foreign-military sales transactions.
The majority of weapons sold by the P5 nations were primarily to countries in the Middle East, where several wars have been sowing chaos in the region and far afield in the form of unprecedented refugee flows, terrorist attacks and desperate states of poverty, as in Yemen.
Developing nations are the primary purchasers of weapons overall, with oil-rich Gulf countries being the largest buyers. In 2015, those purchasers were led by Qatar, with $17 billion in arms-transfer agreements; Egypt, with $12 billion; and Saudi Arabia, with $8.6 billion. Egypt is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council.
Among worldwide arms deals in 2015 — to developed and developing nations — the US also predominated, ranking first with $40 billion, or 50 percent of all such business. France ranked second with $15.3 billion in sales. Russia posted a slim decline in transactions, to $11.1 billion in 2015 from $11.2 billion in 2014. Russia’s most valuable deals are now with India.
The practice of exporting weapons gained prominence during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the US became heavily involved in supplying weapons to their regional allies, the report said.
Britain and China consistently occupy the fourth and fifth positions of total global arms sales, yet in 2015, Sweden and Italy surpassed them with deals worth $1.3 and $1 billion, respectively. After Sweden’s spat with Saudi Arabia over Sweden’s criticism of Saudi human rights, a decades-long arms agreement with the country ended in 2015. It appears that Sweden found a replacement buyer in the United Arab Emirates for new weapons and upgrades worth $1.27 billion.
Both Sweden and Italy are newly elected members of the UN Security Council as of January 2017. To the consternation of staunch advocates of neutrality in Sweden, it has increased its military spending for its own defense since 2008, reflecting concern over aggressions in the Baltic nations and offshore by Russia.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which were worth $8.6 billion in 2015 alone, represent one of the most obvious examples of how weapons transfers can deepen humanitarian crises, say experts in the relevant nongovernmental world. Weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the P5 countries, notably the US and Britain, have been used in attacks on civilians in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, resulting in one of the worst conflicts in the world in the last two years.
The war in Yemen started in early 2015. According to Frank Slijper, an arms-trade expert and project leader at PAX, a Netherlands-based organization working on promoting peace in conflict areas, “Only now, very slowly, do you see how some states have become slightly more reluctant to sell.”
Allison Pytlak, a program consultant who specializes in disarmament and works for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, pointed out, “What has been most striking in the case of Saudi Arabia is that several of the governments that sell weapons there simultaneously condemn its human rights record.”
The Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in December 2014, places limits on the international trade of weapons to ensure that their exports do not violate embargoes or end up being used in situations where human-rights abuses occur. The treaty has been ratified by 88 countries, although only Britain and France of the P5 have done so.
The success of the treaty in stopping sales and creating accountability has been limited.
“Contrary to what people may have hoped, you still see weapons being delivered to the countries involved in major human rights abuses, or using weapons in armed conflict where there are violations of international law,” Slijper said. “That’s been a disappointment among many people in the NGO community.”
Julie Vanderperre is a recent political science graduate of McGill University in Montreal. She has written for the McGill Tribune and was an intern for AID India in Chennai and for Social Justice Connection in Montreal. She currently works for France-Amerique Magazine in New York and speaks English, French and Spanish.