How to Save a Village

by Shashwat Udit:

The global economic crisis has devastated many industries, but not the international arms trade. The amount of United States arms exports in 2009 set a new record: nearly $40 billion. Russia, Germany, and France, the next three biggest exporters of arms, also saw sales grow. Perhaps we shouldn’t find this surprising. Our ancestors learned to sharpen stones and use them to hunt and to fight before they learned how to talk. In the millennia since, we’ve continuously invented ways to make our weapons more sophisticated and more deadly. There’s only one aspect of the arms trade that hasn’t grown significantly over human history: the effort put into controlling it.

If anything, the task of beating our swords into plowshares should be easier today than ever before. Gone are the days when every tribe and village had its own weapons maker or blacksmith to make its swords. Modern weapon systems are manufactured by a handful of powerful countries and corporations. These players aren’t mysterious or unknown. They are listed on major stock exchanges. Their names make headlines. They attend major international exhibitions to show off fancy firepower to potential buyers. They nearly universally build their weapons legally. Yet despite the very public nature of the weapons industry, it is almost unheard of for any genocidal regime, dictatorship, or terrorist group to run out of bullets or not get the firepower it wants. Yes, there is a black market in arms, but weapons are almost always built legally. They fall into dangerous hands only if diverted.

Some people don’t feel that a status quo that allows this to happen is acceptable. Denis Mizne, a member of the steering committee for the international arms trade treaty, strongly believes that the arms trade “is out of control.” Mizne is one of the many activists, civil society members, and government officials working towards creating a treaty to supervise the international trade in weapons. The treaty was proposed in the U.N. General Assembly in 2006. It would set up standards governing the transfer of conventional weapons. The Bush administration refused to back the treaty when it was first proposed, but the Obama administration has since reversed that position.

The details of the treaty are hazy, as it is still being negotiated in committee. But nearly any effort to stem the flow of arms to murderous groups would be an improvement. Right now, said Mizne, “someone selling medication faces more international regulation than someone selling weapons.”

When I first started looking into the topic, I was skeptical about the treaty. The United Nations is hardly the most effective of organizations. U.N. arms embargoes against the worst regimes are routinely flouted; it is unlikely than an arms treaty would be better enforced. Several of the world’s largest arms exporters do not place much weight on human rights. (Russia and China come to mind.)

Even among countries that value human rights, deciding who can get weapons is difficult. The Stalinist Soviet Union was an extremely brutal regime and a danger to its neighbors, but the United States supplied it with military equipment to fight against Nazi Germany. Similar dilemmas exist today, and no treaty can provide an easy answer to them.

After some examination, however, I believe that this effort deserves support. Something Mr. Mizne said stuck with me: “Every country has worries about at least one other person getting weapons.” This is true. Even countries that export arms to brutal regimes have reasons to be concerned by the easy flow of weapons across the world. China worries about Uighur separatists. Russia worries about Chechen rebels. The fact that efforts to curb the arms trade will remain limited does not mean that nothing can be accomplished. Simple measures that can be agreed upon, such as greater transparency and closer tracking of where shipments actually end up, will not stop every conflict. They might not even save very many people. But if these can stop one conflict or save one village, it would make your support worth it.

Shashwat Udit ’12 is a an Applied Physics major in Silliman College. Contact him at