Food, not guns, for the poor Mar03

Millions of poor people, especially in Africa, suffer from hunger and disease as they struggle to live on less than USD$1 per day. Yet many of their governments, led by ruthless and corrupt dictators, spend millions of dollars of national income, grants and aid on purchasing weapons of mass destruction e.g. revolvers, rifles, hand-held grenades, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, ammunition, land mines, tanks and military aircrafts.

Article 51 of the UN Charter authorises states to defend themselves and it is generally accepted that small arms are mainly used for security purposes. At present there are 639 million firearms. Civilians legally own 59% of such small arms.

The free availability of small arms, especially in certain regions of the world e.g. Africa initiates, intensifies and sustains violence, internal conflict and communal unrest. The WHO estimates that 2.3 million people die each year as victims of conflict where small arms are used. These arms threaten vulnerable people such as refugees, women and children. The UN estimates that there are 12.8 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced persons. Potential violence from the proliferation and widespread use of small arms prevents these people from returning to their villages. Expenditure on firearms deprives funding of health, sanitation and education thereby impeding economic development in these poor countries.

Small arms threaten aid and voluntary workers (70% of deaths of personnel from UN, the Red Cross and NGOs is from use of firearms and only 17% from road accidents) and the violence resulting from firearms increases public health costs.

Who produces, sells and profits from the sale of such arms to the poor? Is it possible to regulate the international small arms trade? What are the humanitarian consequences of the massive use of small arms and light weapons?

Some 98 countries have the capacity to manufacture small arms. China, Russia and the USA are the biggest producers, although 10 others have significant production/sales: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. It is difficult to estimate the volume and value of arms sales as each producer/seller country is reluctant to confirm its deals. Reliable estimates suggest that arms sales amounted to USD$2.8 billion and ammunitions USD$4.6bn in the year 2000.

The illegal trade, both for new and second hand weapons, is estimated to be worth USD$1billion. Such illegal trade consists of sales by governments or “middlemen” (merchants of death) to countries under an arms embargo, unrecognised paramilitary groups, rebels, warlords and mercenaries. Under these conditions sale prices are inflated and the poor suffer even more as their governments pay over the odds to secure these weapons! Huge financial kickbacks from such purchases fill the Swiss bank accounts of dictators and warlords and fuel their desire to sustain their reign of terror e.g. a second hand AK-47 rifle costs USD$10 in Afghanistan, USD$12 in Angola, USD$120 in Somalia and USD$2400 in Kashmir!

In contrast to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there are no international norms or standards applying to small arms. The UN Conference on Small Arms in 2001 failed to establish a legal framework to restrict the manufacture, sale and use of such weapons. Clearly, there is an insatiable demand and producer countries continue to profit without the need to disclose their activity.

Is this situation compatible with the morality proclaimed by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair? Should the rich nations with the capacity to produce the weapons of death continue to sell arms to the countries where millions are starving to death? If it is right to disarm Saddam Hussein in Iraq then why should we not apply the same principle in Somalia, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and any other country that uses violence against its own people or its neighbours? It is time that the rich and mighty nations who sit at the top table recognise that hypocrisy & double standards should have no place in international politics. The poor of this world deserve better from us all!