The recent escalation in tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the Air India hijack and the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by both states, serves to highlight the need for the international community to take action to check the proliferation of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons around the globe.
It is estimated that the international arms trade is worth over US$800 billion annually, making it the largest business in the world. It is worth twice as much as the second placed global business commodity; the illegal sale of drugs, which is valued at US$400 billion a year. While every nation has the right to ensure its own security, some governments are now spending more on their military than they are on social development, communication infrastructure, health and education combined.
Take India and Pakistan as examples. India regularly spends 3.1 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on military expenditure while only allocating only 1 per cent of it GDP to health services. Pakistan is worse; it spends around 110 times more on weapons than it does on education and health put together. They are not alone; many governments of developing nations regularly spend more on arms than on the welfare of their people.
Governments who spend such sums on weapons justify themselves by saying that they need them for self-defense. But analysis shows this is not true. The United Nations development report counted 82 armed conflicts in the world between 1989–1999 (only wars where 1,000 or more are killed are counted). Of the 82, 79 took place within national borders: examples being, the civil wars in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and the conflicts in Kosovo and Indonesia. The reality is that most arms are used on ordinary people by forces in the Government or close to it. Rwanda is a case in point, where a government preaching ethnic hatred killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens
Weapons kill in many ways. Of all the 159 wars fought since WWII, nine out of ten of them occurred in the developing world. Of those killed in these conflicts it is estimated that 90% – more than 20 million people – were civilians.
In the Developing World, war also brings starvation. In recent years major famines that have accounted for the deaths of tens of millions of people have occurred in war zones; examples include: Biafra, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Chad, Sudan, Liberia and Somalia. Until there is a radical reassessment of the arms trade and its consequences millions more will die directly or indirectly from this lethal business.
The break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the end of the cold war; this has lead to vast arsenals of weapons becoming readily available throughout the developing world. In Somalia for instance, large stocks of weapons were left over from its alliances first with the Soviet Union and then with the United States. Since 1990 large quantities of weapons have been sold cheaply from the vast stockpile of the former Soviet Union and there is now a real danger that soviet nuclear and biological weapons or weapons technology could be sold to third world countries that may have little compunction about using them.
It is not just the vast loss of life that is the tragic result of sales of weapons in global arms markets. It is estimated that the developing world spends US$221 billion annually on their armed forces. While this is a lot lower than the US$648 billion in military spending by the developed countries, nevertheless, it is still a tremendous drain on these nation's already limited resources. Military spending extracts a particularly heavy toll on the social sector in the developing world; too often it is a trade-off in which the rest of society loses. New armies and new weapons mean fewer funds to invest in health, education, economic development, and other urgent social needs of large and often venerable populations.
The Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) Campaign Against Arms Trade reports that there are 900 million people in developing countries that cannot read or write whose governments military spending exceeds their spending on education. The same is true for health spending. The Campaign Against Arms Trade calculates that in the developing world one billion never see a health professional and more than two million children die of preventable infectious diseases. Military spending is twice as high as on health.
Although some developing countries in the Middle East and East Asia enjoy high standards of living despite their high military expenditures, this level of military spending is still a significant drain on regional economic development because it reduces productive spending and fuels arms races.
Who is to blame for such a staggering waste of economic resources? Who is it that blights the lives of hundreds of millions of people? A large part of the responsibility lies with the developed nations, who exploit their technological advantages in weapons development and the strength of their economies to produce high earnings for the companies and nations concerned; the bottom line is that there is a lot of money to be made in weapons and that it motivates arms manufacturing. To add to high profit margins all arms manufactures are heavily subsidised and protected by their governments. When industrialised countries negotiate free trade agreements they nearly always exempt military spending and since it is only wealthy countries who can afford to spend billions on developing their military capability they will always be able to subsidise their corporation through defense contracts and grants for weapons research.
As world trade globalises so does the arms trade seeking new markets in which to sell it wares and with no regulations or controls there are very few scruples about who they sell them to. This easy access to weapons creates a climate of violence in which belligerent governments, military dictatorships, religious fanatics and ordinary people with causes or grudges reach for rifles as an easy way to solve problems or settle differences.
So what can be done to curb the arms trade? The UN should encourage member governments, particularly the developed nations in Europe and the Americas to sign up to a treaty that curbs the illicit trafficking in conventional arms and discourages excessive military spending in developing countries. All countries with nuclear capability, particularly India, Pakistan and Israel should be made to sign the non proliferation treaty and a body should be set up with powers to monitor it.
Some steps have been taken in this post cold war world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have begun to criticise global levels of military expenditure, particularly those in the developing countries. They now propose that donor countries should make it a condition that the granting of aid will depend on proven low levels of military expenditure. However this is a complex issue. While many countries import arms to bolster repressive regimes, others, including some of the world's poorest countries, buy arms because they face serious security problems often inherited from their colonial past.
Expenditure on weapons and weapons technology will never create a world in which nations and people will feel secure. The trade in arms makes worse the causes of conflict – poverty, economic insecurity, civil disorder and regional tension. A far better way to alleviate poverty and enhance the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people is through sustainable growth, where a nation's resources are used productively to satisfy the needs of its people. This solution offers a much better prospect for a secure and peaceful world.