Andrew Feinstein resigned as an ANC member of parliament in South Africa when he was stopped by then President Thabo Mbeki from investigating a $6 billion arms deal in which $300 million of bribes were paid. His book on the global arms trade will be published by Penguin in early 2011.

Brothers in arms

On entering an international arms fair recently I was made to walk through two body scanners and then subjected to an intensive body search by a security guard. I asked him what he was looking for. "Weapons" he replied. I exited the search area and walked straight into a display table piled high with hundreds of automatic machine guns.

Global military expenditure in 2008 totalled $1,464 billion, $217 for every person on the planet, an increase of 45% over the preceding ten-year period. Today the United States spends almost a trillion dollars a year on national security with a national defence budget of $709 billion in 2008. In Obama's first budget cycle this will increase to just over $760 billion, almost the combined spending of the rest of the world.

The trade in arms is worth about $60 billion a year. It is the most corrupt of all trading activities, accounting for over 40% of corruption in world trade. The combination of the sheer magnitude of the contracts, the very small number of people who make the purchasing decisions and the veil of national security lends itself to bribery and corruption on a massive scale. Some governments are active participants in this corruption while many more are content to countenance the behaviour. Almost all of them make decisions with huge financial implications that are neither cost-effective nor in the best interests of their countries. As a consequence, the trade often undermines accountable democracy, transparent governance and the rule of law in both buying and selling countries.

The arms trade fuels and often sustains conflicts. Not just in the most obvious sense but also in the remarkably high incidence of political and military blowback, where the weapons land up in the hands of those they were meant to defend against.

In his farewell address in 1961, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former general, warned that "[with] the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry... in the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."



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