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Tackling Corruption in the Global Arms Trade: the UN Arms Trade Treaty

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The unregulated conventional arms market is costing lives every day. In many cases, as a result of bribery and corruption, weapons destined for governments end up in the hands of criminals or dictators. The 192 states of the United Nations spent last week negotiating a treaty to regulate the international arms trade. The goal is to come up with consensus by June 2012 "to elaborate a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms. A robust Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) could save lives by regulating the international flow of weapons -- but only if it addresses the corruption which has long plagued the global arms trade.

Because many governments hide behind a wall of secrecy in arms deals, corruption can go unchecked. Transparency International, the anti-corruption organization where I am a Project Officer, estimates that the global cost of corruption in the defense sector is at least $20 billion a year -- this is equal to the official development assistance provided to Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo (DRC), Pakistan, and Bangladesh combined.

That is why it is so important to include strong transparency and anti-corruption provisions in the treaty. Many countries agree. Seven -- Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Syria -- are openly against including such provisions in the treaty.

Corruption in the arms trade costs lives. German police are currently investigating allegations that defense manufacturing company Heckler & Koch exported G36 assault rifles into four Mexican provinces that were embargoed because of human rights considerations. According to a whistle-blower, the bribe per rifle was $25. Initial investigations by London police indicate that hundreds of deaths occurred in Iraq when completely useless 'bomb detectors' were sold to Iraq by at least four manufacturers. According to a manufacturer, one device, the Alpha 6, cost 11 GBP to produce and sold for 15,000 GBP, a profit rate of 136,000%. Thousands were sold to Iraq, totaling $85 million. These false detectors consist of a radio aerial attached to a plastic handle and were found to be "wholly ineffective," yet they were also sold to (and are still in use in) Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico, Lebanon, Jordan, China, and Thailand.

In the 'Angolagate' scandal, corruption allowed weapons worth over €500 million to be sold to Angola during its civil war, in breach of a UN arms embargo. These old Russian arms, including landmines, tanks, shells, helicopters, and naval vessels, undoubtedly contributed to the approximately 500,000 deaths that occurred during the 27-year civil war, and arguably extended the war's length. 36 high-level French businessmen, artists, and politicians, including the son of former President Mitterrand, were convicted of involvement in the affair.

The draft of the Arms Trade Treaty being discussed last week does have reference to the need for corruption to be taken into account, but this needs to be stronger. At the next Preparatory Committee, in July, nations need to press for strong implementation provisions. These provisions should set standards to ensure that arms transfers are only undertaken when both exporting and importing governments have the capacity and the controls to mitigate the risk that the transfer could be undermined by corruption. This standard will require countries selling weapons to assess arms transfers on a case by case basis, and require exporters to specify to governments the precise end-users of the weapons.

On a national level, security forces have enriched themselves throughout the Middle East and North Africa through connections with ruling regimes, kickbacks, and bribes. This has allowed some regimes to act with impunity, fueling the anger seen in the streets today. As the situation in Libya deteriorates, groups will vie for power and the weapons they need to assert it. As turmoil rises in Libya, the higher level of scrutiny provided by anti-corruption mechanisms must be enacted to prevent weapons from entering Libya illegally for use in a civil war, as they did, for example, in Angola.

The world can ensure that corruption does not allow illegitimate arms sales to fuel violence, as it has in parts of the Middle East, Angola and Mexico, and many other countries. A robust ATT with a strong anti-corruption mechanism could help put an end to illegitimate weapons sales by heightening scrutiny of arms transfers. Many countries have now supported the inclusion of anti-corruption standards in the ATT: Austria, Australia, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Chile, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Colombia, Iceland, Japan, France, Finland, Jamaica, Liberia, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Niger, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Togo, Switzerland, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, the UK, Zambia, the European Union on behalf of its 27 member states, and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), on behalf of its 15 member states.

The seven holdouts should now follow suit. Progressive governments and civil society organizations must press these countries and continue to build strong momentum for anti-corruption to be included in the ATT. For the treaty to be meaningful, an anti-corruption standard must be included to end the devastating impact of corruption in the arms trade.

For further information on how civil society is working together towards a robust Arms Trade Treaty, please see the articles of Oxfam's Louis Belanger or visit www.controlarms.org.

Tobias Bock is a Project Officer with Transparency International's Defense and Security Program. The TI Defense and Security Program works to empower civil society, governments, and the private sector to reduce corruption in international arms transfers and in defense and security establishments.