Monday, November 9, 2009

Of Arms and the Man: the global arms trade and the Philippine context

In this day and age of things unprecedented -- where climate change, economic recession, H1N1 fears and global poverty continuously assault our weary and shell-shocked senses with every passing minute -- one thing that rarely gets talked about, except in the tiniest enclaves, is the global arms trade. Many may not know this, but the global arms trade now produces a death a minute.1 In fact, 2.1 million people -- or 2,000 every day – have already died as a result of armed violence.2 Light weapons continue to remain the principal cause of death in conflicts around the world, and the vast majority of casualties happen to be civilians.3 If you didn’t already know all this, you actually have an excuse, because this is regrettably a subject that commands far too little attention.


“the Philippines ranks 10th in the list of countries across the globe with the highest number of gun-related killings”


Today, the global arms trade accounts for over $55 billion, and is the second largest international trading market after narcotics. Principal sellers are the US, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Britain and China; it is no small coincidence that these countries also happen to have the largest defense budgets in the world. But the US has long dominated this global market: it is by far the largest exporter in the world, selling more weapons than the next 14 exporting countries combined. U.S. firms exported arms valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, over 68 percent of all global business. The US was also number one in the arms bazaar to developing nations, with $29.6 billion in conventional weapons agreements or more than 70 percent of the world's total, according to a recent U.S. government report.4 And if all this is not disturbing enough, NGOs have further calculated that the cost of armed violence to Africa alone is $19 billion per year.5

Each year, at least a third of a million people are killed directly with conventional weapons, while many more are injured, abused, forcibly displaced and bereaved as a result of armed violence.6 In armed conflicts, the lives of skilled people are lost; infrastructure such as schools, clinics and homes are destroyed; economic production and markets are affected and investment takes flight. Even outside wartime, government arms purchases often exceed legitimate security needs, diverting substantial amounts of money away from health and education. In ‘peace time,’ the presence and availability of arms often intensifies violence engendered by crime, political protest, social disputes and violence within the home.

While many of the weapons used to commit violations are produced locally, large proportions are sourced from the international arms market. Those involved in the global arms trade legitimately supply munitions for national self-defense, peacekeeping and law enforcement. Regrettably, however, some governments and arms dealers also provide arms to other governments and armed groups that persistently violate the most basic human rights (

Towards a sea-change

Because of the scale and urgency of the problem, Nobel Peace laureates have been petitioning for the formation of an Arms Trade Treaty since 2003. By 2006, diplomats at the United Nations had officially recognized the need for a treaty that would limit an international arms trade that continued to burgeon with vertiginous speed. But the US, under the bellicose administration of Bush ‘43, had been opposing negotiations since their inception.

In a landmark decision last week,7 however, the US voted, for the first time (and to the exhilaration of many), to support talks on the UN-sponsored treaty.8 This is consistent with its recent efforts to achieve international nuclear disarmament -- another shocker for an international community long-inured to US resistance to the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and any number of international agreements. Since the US contributes 25% of the UN budget, its support of this initiative is critical. Spearheaded by Britain and with 153 votes out of 192 in support of the treaty (with 19 abstentions and one rejection), the signs are almost encouraging.9

So who are the spoilers who might inhibit international consensus? Among the abstainers were Russia, China, India and Pakistan -- arms producers, all -- who wanted further discussion before serious negotiations could begin, suggesting that the process to be voted on in 2012 will be a long and drawn-out one. Most nations in the Middle East abstained, but nearly all countries in Africa and Latin America voted in favor. Zimbabwe, which cast the sole negative vote on the resolution, has long been accused of using weapons as a means of state repression.

But perhaps UN meetings on the arms trade have been unusually heated this month because recent events in Guinea ( -- where government forces opened fire on thousands of peaceful protesters (leading to a death toll of 157) -- were on the forefront of many people’s minds. The memory of the recent war on Gaza, where white phosphorus ( and other munitions produced in the US had been used by the Israeli army on innocent civilians -- clear violations of international law -- had also yet to fade. Still, the hanging question remained: how will consensus be achieved, if at all?

Carrots and sticks, for the most part, the usual diplomatic parlay, with bilateral agreements between countries being fattened up or pared down as necessary. The US, of course, is a master of the fine art of bilateral negotiations and invariably gets to make the choicest pickings.

Of the abstentions, the two countries that are particularly worrisome are Russia and China. As one might expect, the US will not agree to scale down its activities if these two countries don’t agree to do the same. It can’t after all be expected to jeopardize its own national security. We shall have to monitor how negotiations pan out in the coming months.

The Philippines

So how does all this affect a country like the Philippines? Well, as it happens, the Philippines ranks 10th in the list of countries across the globe with the highest number of gun-related killings.10 Colombia has the highest number with 50 deaths per 100,000 people in a year, while the Philippines -- the only Asian country in the top 20 list -- has 9.64 deaths per 100,000 people. With more gun-related deaths than any other country in Asia relative to its size, the Philippines clearly needs tougher gun control laws, given the fact that the number of illegal weapons has now topped one million. More than half of the estimated 2 million revolvers, pistols, shotguns and assault rifles in the Philippines are believed to be unregistered and illegal.11 More critically, about 70% of small arms are in the hands of civilians, while 80% of all illegal weapons are concentrated in restive provinces on the southern island of Mindanao -- Basilan, Jolo and Tawi-tawi.12 Gun-related violence, of course, is also expected in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, the rather ineffectual “total gun ban” declared by the Commission on Elections notwithstanding. Equally critical, the government continues to lose millions of dollars in taxes and duties because of the illegal gun trade.

National police chief Jesus Versoza rightly recommends stiffer penalties for those breaking gun laws (since Filipinos “haveFont size a cultural propensity for owning guns”),13 but neglects to mention the poor enforcement record of some police officials, as well as the fact that small arms have made their way to Mindanao and the international black market because of a few rotten apples in law enforcement, who continue to sell arms to rebel groups.

The US, of course, has adjusted accordingly: because of concerns relating to human rights abuses (raised by both the UN and the Fil-Am community in the US), the Obama government has decided to withhold $2 million earmarked for military aid.14 But this withdrawal obviously has to do with some of the excesses of GMA’s government, and may therefore shift with the next administration. But where the new government will stand on the VFA and the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty will undoubtedly determine the level of military aid and armament we receive from the US. This, too, is another development worth watching.

Suppliers to the Philippines

So where do most of the arms arriving on our fragile and beleaguered shores actually hail from? The proliferation not only of loose weaponry, but also of an increasingly sophisticated arsenal at this point (, appears to have stemmed from several main sources: one of the most important has been the overseas pipelines run by the separatist MNLF and the breakaway MILF, based mainly among the Maguindanao and Maranao populations of south-central Mindanao.

The 1970s saw the first and largest influx of modern weaponry into the region. At the outset of the insurgency, this included several thousand Libyan-donated Belgian rifles, as well as mortars and Soviet-manufactured rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Libya also facilitated the supply of Kalashnikov assault rifles, although only a few hundred of a much larger shipment ever reached the MNLF.

However, both insurgent and government forces have overwhelmingly fought with US-manufactured weapons, rather than with the communist-bloc equipment used in the Cold War cockpits of Cambodia and Afghanistan. It remains to be confirmed, but it is probable that both the MNLF and MILF were able to import supplies of US material abandoned in Vietnam after the communist victory of 1975 and later sold on the international arms market.

Other reported sources of imported weaponry have been North Korea and the black market in southern Thailand, as well as China, Germany, Israel and Pakistan.

Yet another source has been local MILF production itself. Finally, limited quantities of firearms have reached Mindanao from Luzon and the Visayas in what essentially represents a spillover from the thriving arms black-market in the northern part of the Philippines.15

The implications of an Arms Trade Treaty

As of this writing, competition for military influence in the Philippines is heating up, with both the US and China making new pledges of funds, arms and equipment to help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines.16 If the treaty fails to reach a consensus, then this is likely to escalate in favor of China. If a consensus is reached, on the other hand, then both countries will be required to follow certain limitations, in which case rogue states that are not signatories to the treaty (such as North Korea, for instance) could well dominate the black market altogether. This obviously does not bode well for the future of the country (since terrorist and insurgent groups could capitalize on this development), which is why the treaty is far more important than many may realize. Another grim reality with the UN system is that many countries pay lip service to such international agreements all the time, even as they continue to flout them at the national level.

The treaty as it stands also has several limitations: for one thing, it doesn’t impinge in any way on the right of states to purchase and acquire weapons for self defense. It also does not affect civilian ownership, since it would only regulate international arms transfers. Clearly, then, domestic laws -- and, perhaps even more importantly, their enforcement -- are equally critical if the problem is to be addressed in a systemic way. The issues of civilian ownership, the registration and test-firing of guns, and the imposition of the stiffest possible penalties for military personnel trading these arms on the local or international black market still need to be addressed under national law. But it is fervently hoped that an amended form of the treaty will pass consensus so international arms transfers can eventually be scaled down, with national governments responding accordingly.

Perhaps the new jihad code espoused by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group points to a new direction in dealing with global conflict ( Indeed, with the recent discovery of a brutal beheading in Jolo,17 the massacre of 46 civilians in Maguindanao by a politician's private army (, on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Manila and with a potentially violent election period ahead -- not to mention an international political climate that has become increasingly incendiary in a number of regions -- the stakes for us all could not be any higher.

N.B. Please note that this is not only copyrighted material; it is also being considered for publication. 


1 The Independent, 2003

2 Oxfam, 2008

3 ICRC, 2008

4 Huffington Post, 2009

5 Oxfam, 2009

6 Control Arms, 2008

7 30 October 2009



10 International Action Network on Small Arms, 2008

11 Reuters, 2009

12 IRIN, 2009

13 Asia World, 2009


15 Jane’s Strategic Advisory Service, 2008

16 Asia World, 2008