Even as the world remains mired in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, one sector continues to thrive: global arms exports. Arms exporting countries and weapons contractors are scrambling to expand foreign sales at a time when their own military budgets are leveling off or declining. This new export push has dangerous consequences for international security.

Conservatively estimated at $40 to $50 billion per year, the trade is dominated by a few players. The United States has accounted for half or more of the value of international weapons exports in recent years, followed by Russia at about 20%. Weapons sales by these and other major players directly contradict the need to cut back on weapons proliferation at a time of rapid political change and ongoing conflict.
The war on everyone’s mind at the moment is in Syria, where the Assad regime has been slaughtering opponents of its dictatorial rule with impunity. Russia is far and away Syria’s largest arms supplier, and that connection combined with its historic political ties to Damascus has led it to oppose a United Nations embargo on weapons transfers to Syria even as the killing there escalates. Pressure from the United States and other supporters of an embargo has resulted in a voluntary Russian pledge to end sales of small arms and ammunition to Syria, but it continues to transfer other kinds of weapons, along with spare parts that help keep the Syrian military up and running.

Despite efforts by Washington to promote an arms embargo, there is an element of hypocrisy in current U.S. policy towards Syria. Even as it is pressing for a weapons cutoff, Washington is buying helicopters for use in Afghanistan from the very same Russian company – Rosoboronexport – that is the prime supplier of arms to the Syrian military. Ken Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, has denounced this relationship, arguing that “the bottom line is that no one should do business with any company that may be an accomplice to crimes against humanity.” The Pentagon has ignored this demand, arguing that the purchase of Russian helicopters is “essential.” Stopping U.S. complicity with Rosoboronexport would be one small but important step towards promoting an embargo.

Russia isn’t the only country engaged in questionable arms deals in the Middle East. The United States is in the midst of fulfilling a record $60 billion order from Saudi Arabia, one of the most tyrannical regimes in the region and one that has fiercely resisted moves towards democracy within its own borders and in neighboring Bahrain, where it has sent troops to help suppress the democracy movement there. In addition to the Saudi deal, the United States is currently committed to supplying arms to Bahrain, although a sale of armored vehicles has been delayed under pressure from Congress and a network of human rights groups spearheaded by Amnesty International. Last but not least, Washington has continued its commitment to supply over $1 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military at a time when that country has far greater need for economic assistance to help bolster its transition to democracy.

The acceleration of weapons exports ignores the fact that we are still a world at war, with at least two dozen major conflicts now under way, according to the Canada-based Project Ploughshares. Over a third of these wars are in Africa, with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo the most deadly of all, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths – mostly of civilians. China has been a major supplier to Sudan, while a variety of arms dealers, neighboring countries, and other war profiteers are pouring arms into the Congo in exchange for access to the country’s natural resources.

U.S. arms transfers to Latin America are relatively modest compared to those to other regions, but sales through traditional channels are complemented by a dizzying array of other programs that supply arms and training under the guise of fighting the drug war or promoting military-to-military relationships. The largest new market is Mexico, where U.S.-subsidized weapons transfers topped $300 million in 2010 to a country that received little or no U.S. weaponry in the early 2000s. The cruel irony of this process is that it puts U.S. weapons on both sides of the conflict, as the cartels take advantage of loose gun laws to buy weapons in the U.S. even as Washington dramatically increases its weapons transfers to government forces.

The question raised by this flurry of arms trafficking is what can be done to rein it in, at a time when it is doing so much damage to human life, fueling conflicts that are killing thousands of people per day. Thankfully, there is one major initiative under way–the push for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This initiative would make it harder to arm dictators or push weapons into areas of active conflict. A United Nations conference to be held next month in New York will determine the shape of the ATT and decide whether it will be a relatively weak voluntary measure or a treaty with real teeth that can have a real impact in keeping weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers and government and non-government parties to ongoing wars.

The crucial question is whether the most important political players – and the biggest arms exporters – can be brought on board in efforts to enact a tough treaty. The United States, Russia and China will be particularly important in this regard. They will face pressure from a global network of NGO’s organized under the umbrella of the Control Arms campaign, reinforced by sympathetic governments.
The ATT is an idea whose time is long overdue. The question now is whether public pressure can force governments to do the right thing before thousands more people die from wars that can and should be prevented.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. He is a monthly columnist for the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org