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Conflicts and arms trafficking, why the Pope has hit the nail on the head

Vatican Insider - published on 06/30/16

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Behind wars and terrorism are arms traffickers who gain from the deaths of innocent people, speculating about conflicts. The Pope has returned to this subjects time and time again over these past three years and his words may have been a bit underrated or seen as right but obvious nevertheless. This issue, however, is a crucially important factor in the spread of violence and explains the ease with which very serious terrorist attacks are being carried out and the continuation of bloody wars that is perpetuating a never-ending cycle of cause and effect. During the Holy Thursday In Coena Domini mass, Francis addressed refugees ay Castelnuovo di Porto, referring to the Brussels attacks which had recently taken place: “Three days ago there was a gesture of war, of destruction in a European city. People who don’t want to live in peace. But behind that act, just as behind Judas, there were others. Behind Judas there were those who gave him money so that Jesus would be delivered. Behind that act (in Brussels), there are manufacturers, arms traffickers who want blood, not peace, who want war, not brotherhood.”

One should bear in mind that Bergoglio is well acquainted with the phenomenon, from a Latin American perspective: in this part of the world major crime, arms, drug and migrant  trafficking  are all interlinked and growing exponentially. Naturally, these problems were raised and denounced by the Pope also during his recent visit to Mexico, a country in which – as in other central and south American countries – buying or procuring firearms, including heavy ones, by legal or illegal means, is extremely easy.

The history of conflict and terrorism of the past 20 years is strongly marked by the expansion of arms trafficking managed both by big criminal networks – Italy’s ‘Ndranghetta playing a leading role in this, as it controls illegal trade in a key area like the Mediterranean – and states given that the arms industry is often  a core item in their balance sheets. The data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which has been recording and examining arms-related transactions, illustrate some of the significant trends of recent years.

 In the period spanning 2010 to 2014, the US ranked first among arms exporting countries, followed by Russia, China, France and Britain. In the US, exports increased by 23% compared to the period 2004-2009. This increase was due partly to the drop in government investment in military spending, a sort of compensation for the sector and for the US economy. Russia on its part, recorded a substantial increase of 37%; China led the way, with a 143% increase in arms sales. Germany on the contrary, reduced exports by 43% but as of 2014, exports to the Middle East started growing again. The US and Russia still account for 58% of all arms exports.

The top five major importers of arms are: India, Saudi Arabia, China, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. All of them together account for 33% of the global importing market (for the period 2010-2014). However, on a more general and continental scale, Asia and Oceania account for the lion’s share of imports  (48% of the total). But to fully understand the phenomenon, we must zoom in a bit: compared to the previous period, over the last five months a boom in arms imports was witnessed in Africa, with a 45% growth – the expansion of extremist group Boko Haram played a a part in this –, followed by Asia and then the Middle East. It is worth highlighting that five of the ten major importing countries are Asian: India (15% of the total), China (5%), Pakistan (4%), South Korea and Singapore (3%). India outdid China in these rankings, while little Azerbaijan increased arms imports by 249%.

 While this basic economic data is in itself significant, it is also important to bear in mind that there is a flourishing black market in arms  which may not be included in the statistics but is in many cases crucial. Three conflicts in particular – FYROM, plus the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq –have contributed – “freeing up arsenals”, destroying states and setting a mechanism of illegal trafficking in motion – to the uncontrolled spread of arms and to flows that reached terrorist groups, militants and mafia groups. In this context, what is striking is that Europe underestimated the phenomenon of illegal arms trafficking within the continent. The Paris and Brussels attacks show – partly on the basis of the investigations carried out so far – that this is a thriving yet poorly regulated market  (for example the dismemberment of Libya led to new flows of arms in Europe) and that from this perspective, Brussels is the weakest link in the trafficking of arms that go to terrorist cells (in general, however, there is a lack of a common EU policies on this).

Then there is Syria, which it is worth looking at separately. According to the studies carried out by SIPRI, almost all main producers and importers have helped arm the regime or the various rebel factions and even ISIS terrorist groups. Russia, Iran, north Korea, China, Belarus and Venezuela have fuelled Assad’s weapons arsenals; Syria, on the other hand, had already set aside a huge amount of resources to modernise its army in the period spanning 2001-2010. On the opposite front, we have Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Sudan, Croatia, US and Britain. In the first case, Russia led the way, followed by Iran which also armed Hezbollah, Hamas and other local militias, while North Korea supplied missile materials. In the second case, significant flows originated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Europe’s contribution was more irregular and marked by fluctuations due to the various decisions linked to EU embargoes and their lifting, meaning that the sale of arms to parties in the Syrian conflict came in fits and starts. The role of the black market in the transfer of weapons from countries such as Lebanon and Iraq was also important.

The use of arms prohibited by international conventions – for example, chemical weapons or barrel bombs, the use of which has been proven by various UN inquiries – deserves a separate chapter.

Against this disconcerting backdrop, the Pope’s words and his powerful appeals for the proliferators of war, in other words arms traffickers, to be stopped, take on a whole new meaning. On the other hand, the Pope’s position in favour of general disarmament follows along the same line the Church has been adopting for some years now with regard to both nuclear and conventional arsenals. 

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