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The Military-Industrial Complex: Risks, Semantics and Loopholes

FRIDAY FILE – The world may have an Arms Trade Treaty, but it’s business as usual for the military-industrial complex, and continued mobilization of women’s rights advocates is vital to ensure that this first step towards arms regulation isn’t the last.

By Rochelle Jones

On 2 April 2013 the General Assembly adopted the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), aimed at regulating the international trade in conventional arms. The ATT opened for signatures on 3 June 2013, and to date has 114 signatures and eight ratifications. Women’s rights advocates successfully campaigned to have a clause included on gender-based violence making the ATT the first treaty that recognizes the link between gender-based violence and the international arms trade.

While countries continue to sign on to the Treaty and figure out the particulars of ratification, it is business as usual for the global military-industrial complex. For example, from 10-13 September 2013, the UK—an ATT signatory—hosted Defence and Security Equipment International’s (DSEi)[i]‘World Leading Defence and Security Event’—a global arms fair bringing together around 1500 arms companies and 30,000 arms buyers and sellers every two years.

The DSEi—a microcosm for the military-industrial complex

The military-industrial complex is a marriage of war [defence] and profit, made possible by the normalization of militarism, and in recent history, legitimized and concealed under the veil of ‘national security’ by the advent of terrorism. The manufacture, buying and selling of weapons worldwide is a massive industry, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimating that “world military expenditure in 2012 totalled $1,753 billion, around 2.5% of world GDP”.

The DSEi (and other arms expos around the world) are a microcosm of this. Members of the public are not permitted. Only government delegations or government-funded organizations/contractors are eligible to attend. This is to ensure that DSEi exhibitors do not sell to freelancers or terrorist organizations, but is also a convenient way to network and do business behind closed doors. There is also the stipulation that arms sales and exhibits “must adhere to the highest regulatory scrutiny, complying with UK and international laws, treaties and conventions”, which means, for example, that exhibitors cannot sell arms to governments that have an arms embargo imposed on them by either the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or at a UK national level. The export of arms is also officially restricted on the basis of ‘end-use’ concerns. For example, a country’s internal repression of its citizens, regional instability and other human rights violations or concerns about the development of weapons of mass destruction. Ambiguous language such as ‘internal repression’, however, can leave the door open for different and varied interpretations.

The DSEi’s disclaimer is: “All defence and security exhibitions in the UK including DSEI can serve only the legitimate defence and security industry which is the most tightly regulated industry in the world. This means exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the highest regulatory scrutiny, complying with UK and international laws, treaties and conventions. DSEi itself works closely with government departments including Ministry of Defence (MOD), Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Home Office to ensure this strict compliance with all rules, regulations and laws. Furthermore, the UK Government itself is responsible for inviting international delegations.”

Yet, the official invitation list for DSEi 2013 included delegations from 14 authoritarian regimes including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and six countries at war including Afghanistan and Iraq. To highlight the absurdity of the military-industrial complex, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said of the 2013 DSEi that, “Libya is back on the invitation list. It was invited to DSEi 2009 when the Gaddafi regime was apparently a good customer for arms. An invitation for DSEi 2011 was not extended due to the UK being at war with the regime.”

Two questions emerge here: Firstly, can civil society trust their governments to adhere to the highest regulatory scrutiny of national, regional and international human rights mechanisms?; and secondly, are those mechanisms robust enough to keep the military-industrial complex in check?

Can the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) make a difference?

According to Control Arms, the ATT is the first international treaty “to establish legally binding obligations on States to ensure responsible and effective controls on all types of international transfers of conventional arms, ammunition and parts and components…The ATT includes explicit prohibitions against States authorising arms transfers under certain circumstances, including where there is knowledge that the arms would be used to perpetrate war crimes, genocide, attacks against civilians, and other grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions”. It is also the first treaty that includes legally binding criterion on the link between gender-based violence and the international arms trade. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) see this as a positive step: “The new article 7(4) mandates exporting states parties explicitly, as part of the risk assessment process, to take into account the risk of the weapons, ammunition, parts, or components being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or violence against women and children.” The Treaty also encourages States parties to “apply the provisions of this Treaty to the broadest range of conventional arms” meaning that States parties are being asked to extend the reach of the Treaty voluntarily. The Global Fund for Women says “hopefully the Arms Trade Treaty will cause some governments to pause, even a little, before putting profit and political interests first – above the lives of countless children, women and men.”

There is a real danger, however, that the ATT is not comprehensive enough and may actually legitimize the military-industrial complex and smooth the way for the arms industry to operate. Independent UK publication Ceasefire Magazine, for example, calls the ATT “a historic and momentous failure”, asserting that the Treaty has some serious loopholes and flaws and that “the original wording from 2003 was relatively strong” but the adopted provisions are now “so diluted as to render it practically ineffective.” Women’s rights organizations such as the Global Fund for Women and WILPF are also concerned that the ATT’s scope is too narrow and that its limitations and loopholes create “the risk of legitimizing the international arms trade, especially irresponsible transfers, must be avoided through careful interpretation and implementation”.

Semantics and loopholes

Like the term ‘internal repression’ used in the UK’s official policy on arms exports, the use of the word ‘overriding’ in the treaty’s text is an example of how a negotiating process can use semantics to weaken and blur meaning. The Treaty states that arms should not be exported if there is an “overriding risk” of serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. According to Ceasefire, this word “overriding” is open to interpretation. “It could be taken to mean that arms exports should only be stopped in extreme or exceptional circumstances, or that a state could decide that the risk of abuse was not enough to “override” the perceived benefits of the arms export.” They say “the original Control Arms draft said that arms transfers should be refused if they were “likely” to be used to commit serious violations. Later drafts raised the threshold to “substantial risk,” and in 2012 it was further raised to “overriding risk”. The NGOs tried hard to get that changed back to “substantial,” with support from many countries, but the US insisted that “overriding” must remain.”

There is further unease around how the Treaty’s implementation will be enforced and monitored because with the absence of an international body mandated to enforce the Treaty, States Parties are ultimately responsible.While the Conference of States Parties will be an established forum for monitoring the ATT’s implementation once the Treaty is in force, without a mandate to enforce, States don’t have to do anything they don’t want to, which brings our attention back to the military-industrial complex as an efficient and effective money-making machine for States. There is an ongoing burden on civil society to keep their governments in check.

Women’s rights organizations and movements worldwide want to see an end to violence against women exacerbated by the prevalence of arms, and an end to militarized societies that create suffocating boundaries around what women can and can’t do in their everyday lives. The ATT is a noteworthy step forward to controlling arms worldwide, and is the beginning of an international conversation of sorts around the impacts of the military-industrial complex. However, it is important to listen to the critics as well as the champions of the ATT and be cautious and vigilant in strengthening women’s movements against the arms trade, because as critics have soberly pointed out, “if a piece of proposed arms control legislation has the support of the world’s biggest arms producing states and the support of the arms industry itself” we need to be on a careful watch.

[i] DSEi is organized by Clarion Events, who also run other military/defence trade shows. DSEi is not the only arms fair that acts as a microcosm of the military-industrial complex. Other ‘defence’ expos (not including those run by Clarion Events) include: Russia Arms Expo; Farnborough International (UK); Sofex Arms Fair, Jordan; International Defence Exhibition (IDEX), United Arab Emirates; International Defence Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS), Pakistan; Eurosatory, Paris