Over the last 4 days of October 2010 a remarkable conference was held in London at the Swedish church there. Attended by delegates from all continents the focus of attention was the proliferation of conventional armaments around the world in recent years and the impact of this upon the prospects of achieving world peace.
Dubbed “Gothenburg IV”, being the fourth in a series of conferences on the topic arranged along ecumenical lines, the conference overlapped with a meeting of the European Council of Religious Leaders (Religions for Peace) which led to the convening of a panel on which many major religions of the world were represented to discuss the promotion of a culture of peace in the context of the ongoing international arms trade.
The Gothenburg Process has four Sweden based organizations behind it and propagates faith based advocacy for disarmament. Its fourth conference (there have been two in Gothenburg and one in Nairobi in the last ten years, plus regional conferences in Washington DC, Bogota and Chang Mai) focussed on the trends both in the fields of military expenditure and arms trade as well as on the progress toward addressing the true cost of selling arms. This is done by promoting the conclusion of treaties, education, ethics awareness campaigning, moral pressure and litigation aimed at curbing the worst excesses of the arms trade. The ultimate goal of the Gothenburg process is to raise awareness of ethical challenges posed by the arms trade. Church leaders, representatives of non-governmental organizations, researchers and academics, government and industry representatives all contributed to the deliberations of the conference.
The sheer size of expenditure in the armaments industry is mind-boggling: in the USA $646 billion per year, its allies add a further $282 billion, the Chinese manage a mere $ 122 billion while Russia weighs in at $59 billion. On the other side of the scale those states in the so-called “axis of evil”, Iran and North Korea, can muster a mere S10 billion in expenditure on arms. Information on the arms trade internationally is inherently unreliable because of the lack of accountability and the opacity that accompanies much of the activity in the field. It is estimated that the trade in arms in Africa increased from $17 billion in 2000 to $28 billion in 2009. Since the global economic meltdown a reverse trend is discernable in the developed world: in the UK the defence budget has been trimmed by 8%, however the emerging BRIC countries are increasing their defence spend. China has trebled its expenditure on arms in the last ten years.
Peter Brune, initiator of the Gothenburg Process, concludes that:
“The bigger the flow of arms, the more probable it is that actors who use them for warfare, criminal acts, human rights violations or the destabilization of society have easy access to them. We must never forget that in the end it is the most marginalized people, often in the global south, that pay the price for the madness of vast amounts of armaments in the world.”
This point is reinforced by the wise words of then US President Dwight D Eisenhower, spoken as long ago as 1953:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
While the cloud of threatening war to which the former Allied commander in World War II was referring has been replaced with the War on Terror, the force of his words remains undiminished in 2010: it is indubitably still the poor who pay for the proliferation of arms in the world.
This also manifests in new ways in the modern era. The competitiveness of the arms industry and the lack of regulation and control of its activities on a global basis has spawned a culture of corruption in the sale of arms that is unparalleled is all spheres other than the trade in illicit drugs. In order to land orders, manufacturers entice their customers with “commissions” (a euphemism for bribes) and attractive looking off-set deals which are meant to foster job creation in and development of the economy of the nation buying arms but seldom do anything of the kind. Because arms deals introduce corruption at the highest levels of government, there is a tendency to unleash an entire culture of corruption with impunity into the countries in which generous commissions are received by those involved in the negotiation of arms deals. The commissions are used to rig elections and to subvert the rule of law. Left unchecked the culture of corruption with impunity threatens the democratic order and the delivery of socio-economic rights in the countries affected by it.
Andrew Feinstein, a former South African parliamentarian, told the conference that the global trade in arms undermines accountable democracy in the countries which buy arms. In his own country $6 billion was spent on weapons not needed and barely used; at least $300 million of bribes were paid and have been used to fund the ANC, the party he represented. The money would have been better spent saving 355,000 people who died of AIDS without the benefit of anti-retroviral treatment; it could have been used to reduce the housing backlog which still stands at over 2 million homes.
The Gothenburg process has spawned similar initiatives in other parts of the world. In Latin America the Bogota process is under way and the Chiang Mai process born in Thailand has dared to start what it calls a “conspiracy of hope”. Representatives of both of these processes gave their regional updates to the conference.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent a representative, Keith Harding, to the conference with the welcome news that 153 countries now support the notion of an Arms Trade Treaty to better regulate and control the international trade in arms. Of lesser cheer was the indication that neither Russia nor China are among the 153. Unless a strong and binding treaty is agreed via the UN processes that are available for the development of a more comprehensive arms trade treaty, the culture of violence abroad in the world will continue. While it is so that good progress has been made with landmines, cluster bombs and the spectres of chemical and biological weapons; the nations of the world need to unite around the 153 countries which already favour the negotiation and conclusion of an effective arms trade treaty.
The moral and ethical insights that are ecumenically honed at conferences such as Gothenburg IV are useful in moving the process towards the realisation of the goal of a non-violent world. Open discussion of the strategies and tactics available to make progress in the right direction are of use to all concerned. It is to be hoped that by the time Gothenburg V comes around there will have been tangible further progress towards that goal. In the words of Thomas Edison:
“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages”
Paul Hoffman SC
5th Nov 2010