Ana Marija Bešker: Disarmament 2012: The Caravan Moves On

And why/ then/ do the troops/ ask/how long and to what edge/do we continue our fight/manly but devoid of sense/because it revolves eternally/around death.[1]

It’s autumn in New York. Ella’s and Louis’s dreamy voices echo in one’s head. They bring the promise of new love and an aching sense of the dreams gone. In the mundane world of international politics autumn in New York brings back the United Nations General Assembly and the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Every year, the First Committee takes stock of the international security and disarmament developments and trends, adopts a number of resolutions on furthering arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, and recommends them to the General Assembly for adoption. The General Assembly adopts them by consensus or a majority vote. Every year, their adoption brings to the mankind a small measure of promise of some, however limited, movement towards a more cooperative global security, arms reduction and disarmament. But, as the Arab proverb goes, a promise is a cloud, fulfillment – a rain.

The ineffectiveness of the United Nations and other multilateral organizations in reversing the negative trends in arms control and disarmament over the last ten years reflects the deepening fault lines of international politics. Fear and mistrust, caused by the current global power shifts but reminiscent of the cold war, the ill-advised war on terror, the economic and financial crisis in the developed world, the global financial instability, and the regional upheaval triggered by the Arab Spring, have blown away remaining hopes about a post-cold war world moving forward to a more cooperative approach to the international security and a rule-based international order.

As Amin Maalouf observed, our disordered world entered the new century without a compass. Military expenditures, arms production, arms trade, and arms modernization and diversification have gained additional currency in difficult global and – increasingly tense – regional security environments, in East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a trusted source of data and analysis of conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament, in its 2012 Yearbook[3] reports that the world military expenditures increased by a mere 0.3 per cent in 2011, the least increase since 1998. Nonetheless, they are estimated at a vertiginous $ 1738 billion, having increased by 50 per cent in the last decade. The USA, determined to preserve its global military superiority, remains the biggest spender with $ 711 billion, ahead of China, Russia, UK, France, Japan and India.

For years the international disarmament community has been raising the alarm about the devastating impact of arms production and arms trade on human security, human rights and freedoms, economic development and peace.  Still, it is worth, once again, to put the global military spending into perspective. It constitutes 2.5 per cent of global gross domestic product or $ 249 for each person. The United Nations budget for 2010-2011 corresponds to 0, 35 per cent of the total sum which surpasses by a few hundred million the global development aid for 60years![4] In comparison with $ 1 trillion that will be spent on nuclear weapons in the USA over the next decade, it would take between $ 35 to 75 billion to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving poverty by 2015. Even die-hard optimists do not expect the MDGs to be achieved on time.

Modest falls in military expenditures, due to fiscal austerity, in North and South America, and Western and Central Europe have been counterbalanced by military spending increases in North Africa, Middle East, East Asia and East Europe. In Asia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia accounted for more than 80% of total Asian defense spending. However, although the gap in military spending between the western countries and Asia is narrowing, experts point out that this changing pattern should not be interpreted as a change in global military capabilities.[5]

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Middle East military budgets rose by 4.6 per cent with Saudi Arabia’s $ 48.5 billion climbing to the sixth place on the list of biggest spenders in the world. For the illustration, the region’s military budgets double the expenditure of the whole continent of South America. The record rise of 25 per cent in North Africa, including 44 per cent in Algeria, is somewhat offset by the actual size of the total expenditure of $ 13.9 billion.

In parallel to world military expenditures, global arms sales – too – have continued to rise over the last decade to reach $ 411.1 billion in 2010, a 60 per cent rise in real terms since 2002. The five largest suppliers in 2007-2011 – the USA,  Russia, Germany, France and the UK – accounted for three quarters of the total arms sales. According to the most recent report by the Congressional Research Service, developing nations continue to be the primary focus of foreign arms sales by the USA and – a distant second – Russia. [6] The USA registered the largest single-years sales total in its history of arms sales.

The increased volume of major conventional weapons transfers has been mostly absorbed by South and South East Asia – particularly, India, South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore.

In spite of the United Nations arms embargo on exports to the Middle East requiring an increased exporters’ responsibility in regard to respect for human rights and conflicts, the flow of arms to the region has continued. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman purchased American weapons at record levels. UAE took the ninth place on the list of major world arms importers, trailing another Arab state – Algeria – in the seventh place.

The enormity of global legal and illegal arms trade flows have made small arms and light weapons the major cause of civilian deaths in conflicts around the world and a major obstacle to socio-economic development, particularly in Africa.[7] Yet, the Conference on a global Arms Trade Treaty, held in Vienna this July after a six year process, failed to adopt a treaty which would establish the highest possible international standards for the transfer of conventional arms and prevent illicit and irresponsible arms trade.

The USA sank it with its last-minute declaration that it “needed more time”. Amnesty International referred to “obstructive behavior” by Algeria, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Syria. The USA, Brazil, China, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Russia, and a few other countries did not join other participating states in favor of continuing to work towards a Treaty. Neither did the Arab countries with the exception of Morocco. Strategic and economic interests, once again, prevailed over the overriding interest of bringing about a safer and a more humane world.

Unrestrained international conventional arms trends have been accompanied by the continuous nuclear weapons quagmire. The un-sustainability of the nuclear status quo, heightened by Iran’s alleged covert nuclear weapons program, was confirmed at the inconclusive May Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT) in Vienna.

At the moment, there are about  19 000 nuclear weapons in the world – 4 400 of them operational – possessed by eight states, the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. The nuclear weapons possessors have not yet started to address the nuclear disarmament in earnest, in contravention of their commitments under the Non-Proliferation. Their actual indefinite retention and modernization of nuclear weapons have undermined the credibility and integrity of the 1968 bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots.

In such a situation, ever more stringent counter-proliferation measures cannot be expected to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and quell the nuclear aspirations on the part of some countries which, for various reasons, might want to turn to nuclear weapons development. Thus, even after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in 1966 proclaimed the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons contrary to the international law, the threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear annihilation continue to haunt the mankind.

Although pledging commitment to peace and disarmament, world nuclear powers are not willing to give up their pre-cold war security strategies not only in regard to nuclear weapons but also in regard to some grossly inhumane conventional weapons. Suffice it to note that the USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea, which hold tens of millions of anti-personnel mines, have not yet signed the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Convention), adopted in 1997.  Seven Arab countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria and UAE – have not signed the AP ban either.

This gloomy survey brings us back to the beginning of our essay and the current United Nations General Assembly First Committee deliberations. Like the barometer determining the condition of the weather, the First Committee session exposes the global political stasis at the root of alarming global arms control and disarmament developments. The debate reflects a global angst, caused by the strategic uncertainty and exacerbated by the continuous financial and economic instability. Angst has been increasingly plaguing our interconnected and globalized world.

Today’s new constellation of old and rising power centers without a global hegemon (although the USA will remain the world’s major military power) is unstable and anarchic. Strategic protectionism inherent to major  global shifts has been continuously gaining strength over collective interests, and impeding the emergence of an international consensus on new international security architecture. Thus, regional conflicts and other pressing global problems – poverty, inequality, cross-border crime and terrorism, access to energy and other natural resources, climate change, failed states and intrastate violent conflicts – continue to fuel global militarization.

The Arab upheaval has been part and parcel of the changing global political and military landscape. In December it will be two years since Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, lighting the flames of the Arab Spring across North Africa and Middle East and inspiring worldwide protests against social injustice and inequality.

The transformation sparked by the Arab Spring has been painful and chaotic, marked by the first free elections in Tunisia and Egypt, the war and a UN sanctioned intervention in Libya, an armed conflict in Syria and violent conflicts between the regimes and rebel forces in Yemen and Bahrain.

In 2011 these violent conflicts, together with the oppression and human rights abuses, external military engagement and the rise of jihadists’ groups, have made the Middle East and North Africa into the least peaceful region in the world, slowing the process of transition, difficult as it might be. In fact, the  accelerating arms race in the Middle East has been adding fuel to the fire, aggravating tensions and increasing volatility and instability in the region.

Admittedly, the Middle East has been no stranger to arms race over more than sixty years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, current and historical regional fears and ambitions as well as oil revenues, on one side, and external, strategic and economic, interests of major powers, on the other side, have been pushing the militarization in the Middle East to dangerous levels.

In addition to rising conventional arms acquisition, there is a renewed interest in the region in nuclear energy. At least thirteen countries in the greater Middle East have announced plans to explore civilian nuclear energy.[8]  While the latter have been motivated, to a large extent, by the neighboring Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, both heighten concern about peace and stability in the region, and the future of the Arab Spring agenda.

The latest information about the long awaited talks on establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East confirms these concerns. The conference, which is supposed to take place – under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary General – in Finland by the end of the year, seems to be bogged down in organizational issues due to Israel’s standard objections and Iran’s ambiguity.

Once again this fall, the United Nations General Assembly First Committee on International Security and Disarmament, will draw the attention of the international community to the dangerous and far-reaching impact of arms production, arms trade and violent conflicts on human security and sustainable development. The world has long changed but in the field of disarmament and international security business goes on as usual.

A majority of the world’s countries and an active, worldwide arms control community of concerned civil society organizations, NGOs, various campaigns, committees and prominent individuals[9] will, again, make their voice heard, undeterred by a decade long lack of any substantial results in furthering disarmament objectives. The disarmament community is now focusing not only on the security aspect of militarization but also, to a greater extent, on the military postures violating the realization of economic and social rights of the people across the world in accordance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The disarmament community also tries to look elsewhere to see whether it is possible to make progress in some other way. Anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions bans, mainly due to civil society initiative and like-minded countries’ efforts, have established positive precedents in this regard.

The challenge of reversing the current slide into regression is monumental. It requires a fundamental change in perceptions and world concepts. They will not happen overnight – if at all – but this fact does not absolve us of our obligation to work for disarmament, an obligation to ourselves and our children It is indeed a high time that not only the disarmament community but all peace-loving people across the world wake up to this challenge, including the people in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring has not given a pass to anybody to a continuation of the failed policies of the past, including to spending obnoxious funds on arms instead of to building a more just and safer world for the people.

“All of us”, to return to Amin Maalouf, “who live at the time of this strange beginning of the new century have a task – and more than any other generations before us, the means – to contribute to the saving endeavor, with wisdom, lucidity, but also with a passion, and occasionally even with rage”.[10]

Otherwise, the proverbial caravan will continue to move on, unabated. And in the end silence the echo of Ella’s and Louis’s beautiful melancholy voices in our heads, too.

Ana Marija Bešker, former Ambassador of Croatia and former Yugoslav diplomat, member of the President’s Board on Foreign Policy and International Relations, email: ambesker@yahoo.com

Zagreb, 25 August 2012


[1] Josip Sever, Pobjednički pohod, Diktator, Zagreb, 1969

[2] Amin Maalouf, Poremećenost sveta (Le deréglèment du monde), Laguna, Beograd, 2009

[3] All figures, unless stated otherwise, are taken from SIPRI Yearbook 2012, SIPRI, Stockholm, June 2012

[4] Between1945 and 2009 the international aid for development amounted to nearly $ 2 trillion. http://developmentdatachallenge.org

[5] Military Balance 2012, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London

[6] The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service is a division of the Library of Congress. The annual report was written by Richard F. Grimmett and Paul K. Kerr and delivered to Congress on Friday, August 24, 2012.

[7]Every year an average of two bullets for every person on this planet is produced. With so few global rules governing the arms trade, no one really knows where all those bullets will end up – or whose lives they will te ar apart. Under the current system, there are less global controls on the sales of ammunition and guns than on bananas and bottled water. .. The deadly and poorly regulated trade in arms leads to serious human rights abuses, armed violence, conflict, poverty and organized crime around the world.”  Oxfam and Amnesty International letter to the UN Secretary General, July 2012

[8] Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the shadow of Iran, The Strategic Dossier, IISS, 2008

[9] World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates: International Peace Bureau (PB) for a nuclear-free world, Chicago, 23-25 April, 2012

[10] Ibid.

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Filed under Disarmament, Discussion, Europe, The Arab Spring, The Middle East, United States

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