Business as usual – not just in Yemen

By Sam Perlo-Freeman, CAAT Research Coordinator

The war in Yemen is a horrific example of how major arms exporters, chiefly the US and UK, have continued to arm countries engaged in a brutal and devastating conflict, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But it is far from the only example, and such policies are not limited to one or two seller countries – sadly, they are all too typical.

Last week, my new report, Business as usual: how major weapons exporters arm the world’s conflicts, was published in conjunction with World Peace Foundation, as part of a two-year project: “Defense industries, foreign policy and armed conflict” funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and involving an international team of researchers.

The report presents the results of data analysis of arms sales by the leading exporters worldwide, combined with data on armed conflict, going back to the 1990s. The analysis includes the eleven countries listed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as the top arms exporters in recent years: The USA, Russia, Germany, France, China, the UK, Spain, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ukraine.

The study first looked at 30 conflicts that reached the level of “War” since 2000, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Project. For each conflict, the record of these eleven exporters in selling arms to the conflict participants was examined. The study then carried out a broader statistical analysis from 1990, looking at whether involvement in conflict made a country any more or less likely to receive arms from each of the eleven exporters, once other relevant factors, such as a country’s level of military spending, are taken into account.

Key findings

  1. There is very little evidence that war or armed conflict leads to restraint in arms transfers by major exporters, regardless of whether their stated policies suggest they should. All major arms exporters supplied substantial volumes of arms to at least some of the wars of the current century.
  2. There are no clear cases where the outbreak of war was accompanied by a halt in arms sales by a major exporter. In cases where exporters did not supply arms to a war, the recipient(s) tended to be smaller, poorer countries where demand for arms is lower (‘low stakes’ cases), even in wartime. Clearly political factors also prevail in some cases, for example where the supplier and recipient had a hostile relationship, or where the recipient had been regarded by (western) suppliers as a ‘pariah’ long before the outbreak of war (e.g. Iran and Syria).
  3. There are some differences among the eleven top arms exporters covered in this report: Russia supplied arms to the greatest number of wars; and Ukraine, the smallest of the exporters, was a significant conflict supplier in relation to its overall level of exports. Even so, the difference between these countries and the US and western European suppliers, was relatively minor.
  4. For some exporters (Russia, France, Israel, Spain, and the Netherlands), conflict appears to be associated with a higher probability of transfers. For the other seven, it made no significant difference either way.
  5. Rather than conflict, demand factors – levels of GDP and military spending, and the overall level of arms acquisitions by a particular country – were key determinants of whether a given exporter would supply arms to that country.
  6. US and European exporters sometimes displayed a pattern of selective, ‘low stakes’ restraint, including cases where they imposed arms embargoes in direct response to conflict or repression. These tended to be cases where opportunities for sales were in any case limited.
  7. An established arms supply relationship was one of the most powerful determinants of whether arms transfers would occur in the future between a supplier and recipient, regardless of the recipient’s conflict status at any particular moment in time.

In summary, there is little or no evidence that participation in war or armed conflict made it less likely for a country to receive arms from any of the major exporters. The lack of arms supplies to a conflict party appears, in the great majority of cases, to be more likely the result of limited demand, or political factors that are much broader than, and often predate, the conflict. Thus, exporters have generally exercised restraint only in ‘low stakes’ cases where there was limited potential for sales in any case.

Next steps – exploring the “why”

These gloomy conclusions perhaps come as little surprise to those of us who have campaigned against the arms trade for many years. We have seen, all too often, politicians hail new laws and treaties that will supposedly lead to a “responsible” arms trade, and boast of a “rigorous and robust” system of export controls, all the while continuing to arm some of the world’s worst warmongers and dictatorships. But this report sets out the details, on an international basis, in a systematic and, dare I say it, “rigorous and robust” manner.

My report raises at least as many questions as it answers. It tells us the “what” of arms sales to conflict zones, but does not attempt to go into the “why”.

Almost certainly one factor, we suspect, is the deep links between the arms industry and government in many countries. In February, the Center for Responsive Politics, one of our Carnegie project partners, produced their report, Capitalizing on conflict, revealing the extent of the US arms industry’s political lobbying and campaign contributions, and the revolving door between government and industry. Many of the same issues apply also to the UK.

Meanwhile, our project team will also be exploring the “why” more deeply, with in-depth country case studies of the US, the UK, and France, conducted by my colleagues Jennifer Erickson, Anna Stavrianakis (a prominent academic critic of UK arms export policies), and Emma Soubrier respectively. These studies will delve into the policy motivations behind arms exports to conflict zones, including arms industry influence on government, foreign policy interests, and public opinion. The results will be shared here when the research is finished, and I for one will be excited to see them come to fruition!

Is there hope for change?

The report, like everything we know about UK arms export policy, shows how much those of us seeking an end to the destructive international arms trade are up against. But the global picture is far from without hope. On Yemen, international public outrage is beginning to force political change, with Germany, Italy, and the US, among others, wholly or partly stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Here in the UK, we continue to press our court action to try to force the government to live up to the standards set by its own legislation.

Our efforts have led to the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker Peace and Social Witness nominating CAAT for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside our Yemeni partners Mwatana for Human Rights, who so fearlessly document the crimes committed by all sides in the war. Their decision to honour us reflects just how important this issue is to global peace and justice, and how it is becoming one that politicians worldwide cannot ignore.

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

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