Unless we curtail the arms trade, we face another violent century

By Carmen Lawrence (July 23, 2003)


In a speech he gave in 1999, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, surveyed the legacy of the 20th century, labelling it a "violent century"; a century that encompassed two World Wars, countless civil wars, a senseless chain of assassinations, civilian bloodbaths in many armed conflicts, the inhumanity in the gulags, the tragedy of Hiroshima, and the vile stain of the Holocaust.

The 21st century is shaping up as no less bloody - and state sanctioned violence is enjoying a new found acceptance, with Howard, like his friend George Bush, brushing aside international co-operation and diplomacy in favour of crude and violent imperialism.

Despite near-saturation coverage of the war on Iraq and the continuing preoccupation of our leaders with the so-called "war on terror", there has been little public reflection on what actually happens when armed conflict is used to resolve disputes. Or on who pays the price. Or what can be done to avoid war.

As the authors of the UN commissioned report, Women, War, Peace, observed,

It is hard to imagine a world without war. Every day we hear reports of new conflicts and old grievances, or escalating tension and violence. During our mission to conflict situations, we met generations of women and girls who had known nothing other than war. Many were gripped by fear and anger; others had learned to dull their feelings with a quality of silence that often follows catastrophe.

It is estimated that during the last century, more than one hundred million people died in war in over 50 countries around the globe. This figure is a dramatic increase over earlier centuries and is about three-quarters of estimated war deaths since 1500 AD. Add to this the lives cut short in the aftermath of war by disease and malnutrition and the many millions more murdered by politically repressive regimes and terrorist attacks and you arrive at a staggering loss of life.

This loss has been sanitised and rendered "normal" at the same time as the way war is conducted effectively removes the distinction between combatants and civilians as targets of war. Indeed, civilians are often deliberately targeted, as they were in Dresden, Cologne, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Civilians accounted for 5 per cent of all victims in WWI, rising to 50 per cent in WWII - soaring to nearly 90 per cent in recent wars.

And over the past 50 years, we in the developed world have been largely insulated from this suffering, since most of the wars have been in the economically impoverished third world. As memories of the catastrophic reality of the Second World War fade, war is enjoying a resurgence of respectability as an instrument of foreign policy, with no apparent concern by our governments for the devastation it inflicts on so many lives and hopes. And no thought either, it seems, for the potential for revenge and hatred to grow from the seed bed of war.

We should not accept the inevitability of war - deadly conflict is not inevitable. It does not emerge inexorably from human interaction. We are not condemned by our natures to settle disputes with violence. And there are no mysteries about why violence erupts. The problem is not that we do not understand the roots of deadly conflict but that we do not act. Such action should be based on the concept of prevention, confronting both the inequalities and intolerances that fuel conflict and the manufacture of weapons which enable deadly conflict.

Instead of signing up to an increasingly deadly expansion of militarism, the Australian government should be playing its part in ensuring that the international community appreciates the increasingly urgent need to prevent deadly conflict, especially given the increasing availability of weapons of all descriptions.

One of the features of the late-20th century is that wars within states have been far more frequent than those between states. There was a proliferation of crises within states in the 90s, with a 1996 Swedish study showing that only 5 of the 96 armed conflicts since 1989 were conventional wars between states. The remainder were internal, many resulting from the explosion of intolerance into mass violence.

These wars are being fought with conventional weapons - not the so-called "weapons of mass destruction". Modern conventional weapons, including small arms, are enormously destructive - as the U.S. soldiers are discovering in Iraq - and can be bought as easily as food - indeed, in many places where food is scarce, more easily.

An AK-47 costs between $40 and $200, and ammunition is plentiful and cheap. Deployed land mines alone are thought to number over one hundred million worldwide - add to that the unexploded cluster bombs in Iraq. This booming world market for arms has made it all but impossible to keep track of the flow of such weaponry.

The question is why developed countries do not curb this arms trafficking, since it would appear to be in their interest to prevent these conflicts and to stop them from getting out of hand. It seems that the developed nations place their immediate commercial interests ahead of peaceful co-existence. The market rules.

As Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan administration pointed out in a recent commentary on a British Medical Journal article,

Exporting arms is big business. The United States exports more military hardware than the rest of the world combined - about $20 billion a year. It not only generates profits for the defense industry but also helps the US balance of trade and reduces the cost of weapons to the Pentagon.

Added to this, he argues, is the traditional reluctance of the United States to accept limitations on its sovereignty. This is especially true of the Bush administration, which has practiced an extreme form of unilateralism and argued vehemently that it is entitled to protect its international pre-eminence by whatever action it deems necessary. It has unsigned the UN Rome statute, which established the international criminal court, and has refused to sign the protocol to enforce the treaty banning biological weapons. It refused to participate in an agreement to curtail the international flow of illegal small arms because it "infringed on the American right to own guns".

History has shown that failure to deal with the explosion of arms manufacture will cost more, in the long run, than seeking to curtail the industry now. And it's not just the United States that is culpable. Nearly all of the large, wealthy established states manufacture and sell arms, using aggressive marketing and easy financing to impoverished nations and "rogue states". This has resulted in huge inventories of weapons and a veritable global flood of arms.

Current leaders, including our Prime Minster, seem to think that sheer military might and highly visible, intrusive security measures are all that are required to keep us safe. The vast amounts of money, energy and inventiveness being poured into defence and security are profligate. Not only does it diminish resources available to deal with many of the underlying issues which cause social tensions and violence, but it reinforces the defeatist view that war and violence are inevitable, and that all we can do is minimise the risk that we will be victims.

Few would argue with the general statement that it is better to prevent deadly conflict than to deal with its consequences. But prevention requires action, and action involves costs, costs the wealthy first world is often unprepared to meet. Many Western nations are notoriously lacking in either the willingness to work toward a more equal distribution of the world's wealth or a sustained commitment to international efforts to help build modern states where they are lacking. Just ask the people of Afghanistan.

It has, in the past, been difficult to convince people and governments of the need to provide such support, because internal conflict in other nations has few obvious consequences for anyone beyond those enmeshed in the violence. With a greater awareness of the potential for these conflicts to spill over into terrorist acts, the climate for prevention may be improving, but only if the international community embraces the rule of law to deal with terrorist acts and eschews retaliatory and indiscriminate violence - unlike the response to September 11.

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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