Exporting Weapons of Mass Destruction
February 11, 2002
by Eric Hananoki

If George W. Bush wants to stop the increase of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, he need not look any further than his own state department.

Every year, defense industries ship billions of dollars in small arms and light weapons to other countries. Small arms and light weapons include everything from revolvers and pistols to the more destructive anti-aircraft systems and AK-47s.

The United States is making a killing in these exports. According to the recently released Small Arms Survey, the United States exports more small arms and light weapons than any other country - four times as many as its closest competitor, Germany.

Not only are small arms and light weapons highly profitable, they're also extremely destructive. Small arms and light weapons kill 500,000 people a year, 80% of whom are women and children.

The presence of these weapons in third world countries and conflicts zones cause a multitude of harms, including massive economic losses, nearly $140 to $170 billion per year in Latin America alone; facilitating the 3rd world problem of child soldiers; and most importantly, causing the destruction of villages and societies. One AK-47 into a primitive African village can destroy it permanently. It's no wonder that Kofi Annan called small arms and light weapons the "true weapons of mass destruction."

With the potent power of these weapons of mass destruction, you'd think the United States would only ship small arms and light weapons to responsible countries, right? Well, guess again.

In the past decade, the United States has shipped arms to countries with questionable human rights records, including Bahrain, Angola, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. In fact, according to the Federation of American Scientists, United States-origin small arms are used in 92% of conflicts worldwide.

When such arms are exported to other countries, the standard procedure is for the state department to ensure that arms are handled carefully and received by the proper people. Unfotunately, due to apathy, this rarely happens. Indeed, under the Bush administration, the United States has taken a hands-off, free trade policy towards weapons exports. According to a study from the non-profit organization Fund for Peace, US brokering laws are never enforced, even when there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Further, according to the General Accounting Office, only .8% of weapons licenses are ever checked by the State Department.

The logic posed by conservatives is as follows: restrictions on the exportation of guns inevitably lead to the loss of defense jobs. What conservatives are weighing, apparently, is the loss of 500,000 lives a year and the escalation of conflicts due to American-bought weapons with the downsizing of several hundred factory workers. To put it bluntly, the federal government could sell crack to babies and make tidy profit but doesn't because it causes problems.

Even more ridiculous is the argument, spouted by Undersecretary of State John Bolton, that the regulation of small arms and light weapons hurts our ability to exercise the 2nd Amendment.

But restricting exports of small arms to citizens of foreign countries, people who have no right to bear arms, does not harm the 2nd Amendment. Further, no Supreme Court case has ever ruled that the transferring and selling of small arms, like assault rifles, is protected by the 2nd Amendment. If that was the case, 6-year olds and criminals could buy AK-47s with ease at K-Mart.

Despite the idiocy of these arguments, the Bush administration continues to export. At a recent Small Arms conference at the United Nations, the United States delegation, lead by Mr. Bolton, single handedly blocked a workable treaty that would have regulated small arms exports. As the Guardian noted, the conference "ended in almost total failure at the weekend after the US blocked every significant proposal."

What these proposals would have done is curbed the illicit trafficking of small arms in third world countries. In Africa, guerilla fighters can buy American-made small arms for as little as a chicken. Because arms are exported by the truckloads, they are relatively easy to acquire. The UN treaty would have imposed strict regulations on which countries could receive small arms shipments, stemming the steady infusion of arms to conflict zones. Countries enaged in a conflict or possessing gross human rights records would have been unable to purchase arms. Yet the United States, as the San Diego Tribune noted, forced the UN to adopt an unenforcable, unverifiable treaty that essentially does noting.

Even if President Bush doesn't care about the destruction of third world countries, he should note the irony of his war against terrorism. The US armed, directly and indirectly, the very people we're fighting. Even now, US-sold arms to Egypt and Saudi Arabia end up on the black market and are sold to terrorists.

As the world's superpower, the United States has the power to influence foreign policy and the future of countless countries. Exporting small arms and light weapons to countries that have poor human rights records or are involved in conflicts is not only wrong, it's stupid. If the United States wants to do something to help its war on terrorism, it would be wise to not export arms to irresponsible countries. 500,000 deaths a year can't be wrong.

Eric Hananoki edits The Hamster, a website promoting the cause of liberalism on the web. He is also the online editor of a newspaper in Hawaii.