World arms deals and tilting at windmills

September 30, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

For the United States, the world’s leading arms merchant, a controversial deal with the tiny island state of Bahrain is negligible, less than half a percent of America’s total sales.  But it helps explain efforts to regulate the global arms trade more tightly.

The proposed sale in question is worth $53 million, involves 44 armoured Humvees, a variety of missiles, and night vision equipment. The Pentagon announced it in mid-September, just three months after the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahue, in a speech in Geneva, included Bahrain on a list of governments that “repress dissent with impunity.” Along with Syria, Yemen and Libya, the royal rulers of Bahrain responded to the Arab Spring democracy movement by killing and jailing opponents.

In mid-September, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency told Congress that the deal would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”  The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the U.S. appeared to “reward repression with new weapons.”

That would make it hard for people to take seriously American statements about human rights and support for democracy, said Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch. The deal should be delayed until Bahrain ends abuses against critics, she said on September 22.

Since then, the Bahraini rulers took more action that provided fodder to its critics. On September 29, a court sentenced a protester to death for allegedly killing a policeman and sentenced doctors who had treated wounded protesters to prison terms from five to 15v years.

Bahrain, connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, there to guard shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-borne oil. The Pentagon’s explanation of the deal echoed decades of U.S. policy that placed a higher value on stability than on democracy.

That kind of thinking was part of the reason why a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners, in 2003, launched an initiative to establish an international Arms Trade Treaty that would close gaps in existing arms control regulations and set legally binding standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons.

After various preparatory meetings, the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to convene a conference next July to work out a robust Arms Trade Treaty. The enterprise brings to mind an image of well-meaning Don Quijotes tilting at windmills. Why? Since the end of the Cold War, the international arms trade has become more complex, more competitive and more driven by economics rather than ideology.


Then, “providing conventional weapons to friendly states was an instrument of foreign policy utilized by the United States and its allies. This was equally true for the Soviet Union and its allies,” writes Richard Grimmett, the author of the latest report on the global arms trade the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides annually to the U.S. Congress. Now, “the principal motivation for arms sales by key foreign suppliers…may be based as much, if not more, on economic considerations as of those of foreign or national security considerations.”

That holds true, too, for the U.S.(where defense and aerospace companies provide an estimated 800,000 jobs) and it holds especially true at a time of declining world-wide orders for arms because of the global recession. In 2010, according to the CRS report, world-wide arms transfer agreements totaled $40.4 billion, a decline of almost 40 percent compared with 2009.

The U.S., long the world’s top arms supplier, ranked first again in 2010, with arms deliveries (as opposed to agreements) worth $12.2 billion, more than twice as much as second-ranked Russia. Germany came third, evidence of what the CRS report described as weapons-exporting countries looking for new clients in areas where they have not played major established roles.

The German government faced fierce domestic criticism in July after reports on a planned deal to sell 200 top-of-the-line Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia, which had sent troops and tanks across the causeway to Bahrain to help crush anti-government demonstrations. Unlike the U.S., Germany has no direct security interests at stake in the region. But like the U.S., Germany has a defense industry that needs exports to flourish. Its main arms manufacturers employ around 80,000 people.

All of which casts a dark shadow over prospects of an effective Arms Trade Treaty. As does China, which is opposed to the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in any international treaty. As it happens, China has become a key supplier of such weapons to Africa, where they have caused the vast majority of casualties in conflicts that have killed millions.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.

One comment

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Great article. It was nice to relate the approval to sell 53M worth of weapons to Bahrain’s regime and the recent escalation in human rights abuses. Indeed, we believe the approval has given Al-Khalifa the green light to proceed with the show military trials of the doctors, sentencing them to as long as 15 years! “As usual”, US has softly expressed “concerns” about these trials but said nothing else.
If such trials take place in a non-US ally country, how the US would have reacted?

Thank you.

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