In June the US turned back three Russian ships reportedly headed to the port of Tartus along with attack helicopters and other armaments that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needed to terrorize civilians in rebel-held areas. Rather than offering an apology, Anatoly Isaykin, the general director of Russia’s arms control export company, Rosoboronexport, said that the advanced defensive missile systems that his company had supplied to Syria could shoot down planes or sink ships. He added that “whoever is planning an attack should think about this.” Turkey discovered that this claim was no idle threat when Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 fighter over the Mediterranean sea on June 22.
It is not often that we hear from someone in the arms trade. Typically a shy lot (and with good reason), they peddle arms to some of the most brutal regimes around the world. The arms themselves range from fighter aircrafts—helicopters and warships with guided missiles—to radar and electronic warfare systems to tanks, armoured vehicles, machine guns and rifles. A common misconception persists that repressive regimes buy weapons from illegal sources. The vast majority of munitions sold around the world, including those bartered to human rights-abusing governments or to conflict areas, are legal and actively supported by governments.
Russia is not alone in supporting its arms manufacturers. The US, Germany, China, Britain and France are major exporters. All have a long history of hustling artillery and weaponry components, caring little for the repercussions, often turning a blind eye when these armaments are used on civilians. Britain’s record is little better than Russia’s. Recently, the British government granted export licenses to the firm supplying the ordnance, tear gas and crowd-controlling ammunitions to Bahrain. It also approved $700 millions worth of exports to Saudi Arabia last year. Both of these countries have actively repressed opposition to their dictatorial regimes.
The roll-call of unethical sales goes on. Many African countries have been good customers of arms dealers, whose weaponry has been employed in some of the bloodiest wars on that continent. Between 1990 and 2005, armed conflicts cost twenty-three African countries $284 billion and untold death and misery.
The arms trade is well-organized; it even has a trade fair every year where the latest weaponry is on display. This year, between May 2 and 4, Bratislava hosted the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX). Not only to showcase the best in missiles, night-vision goggles and high-ordnance, but organizers also boasted that warships could berth “alongside the exhibition hall.”
The arms trade is big business, totaling $60 billion a year, and is responsible for 150 deaths a day in various conflicts around the world.
In 2006, negotiations started in the UN on an Arms Trade Treaty and talks are nearing completion. Between July 2 and 27, 2012, negotiators from 150 countries are expected to thrash out the final details in New York. The sticking point is words in the draft treaty that states that governments must not approve arms sales to countries where there is a “substantial risk of a serious violation” of human rights. If the draft treaty was in place now, it would prevent Russia from sending artillery to Syria. The US wants to water down this clause to read that governments need only “consider” factors such as human rights records before authorizing weapon sales. In all likelihood, the US can expect support from China, Russia, and a number of repressive sovereignties. It should come as no surprise that one of these regimes is Syria.