A weapon, an arm or armament is any device that is used with intent to inflict damage or harm. Weapons can be divided into three main categories: cyber, nuclear and conventional weapons.
Conventional Weapons are ‘essential to national security and tools of national politics with the legitimate military, police, and civilian use’ (Stohl, 2009: pp. 2): armaments manufactured and traded among countries, meant to be used by armed forces of states and civilians. Labeled as “conventional” because fitted with conventional explosives (i.e. do not use nuclear, biological or chemical ordnance), the definition includes “heavy” weapons such as battle tanks, artillery systems, munition, armored combat vehicles, combat helicopters, fighter aircraft or warships, but also small arms and light weapons, like handguns or light and heavy machine guns that can be used independently by one or several persons. Any technological or digital equipment used to make them work is also considered part of it. (DoD, 2010: pp. 106)
The primary function of weapons is to harm: machines programmed to protect national security are commissioned to designers and engineers. But how to deal with the concept and design of armaments? Is there an ethical approach to manufacture, sell, and use them?
The Right of Self-Defense
The Ethics of Arms Trade hides behind the common right of self-defense, as stated in Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter Article 51: ‘Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security’ (UN Security Council, 2018: pp. 112). The Article provides an exception to the prohibition of the use of force as stipulated in Article 2 of the Charter. The right of individual or collective self-defense can be exercised in the event of an “armed attack” against a Member of the United Nations. States have to immediately report to the Council the measures taken and discontinue them as soon as the latter itself has taken the necessary measures for the maintenance of international peace.
The Consequences of the Arms Business
The trade of Conventional Weapons, as much as any other legal trade among countries, is commerce ruled by law. Common international regulation is difficult to achieve because each state has its import-export policies and systems, heavily influenced by economic and political factors. The consequences of a not controlled system are clearly visible and countable. Conventional weapons should be used in a conflict situation but the consequences of their use impact also the lives of civilians non-directly involved: it is important to analyse not only deaths and injuries but as well how urban infrastructure, medical and educational systems, migration flows, and culture and economic development are affected by the proliferation of weapons.
The Humanitarian Law
The acceptable use of weapons is governed by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, which regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. Even if not all countries signed the agreements, the conventions protect people not taking part in hostilities and those who are no longer doing so. It is imperative to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to protect med workers. → The Geneva Conventions
The Arms Trade Treaty
History lists many attempts at formal controls of the arms flow. A concrete initiative to define parameters of a legally binding international agreement has been taken in 2014. The Arms Trade Treaty is a multilateral agreement adopted by the UN General Assembly to limit the illicit flow of arms: it determines common standards for regulating the international trade in conventional weapons and ammunition, which all States Parties (voluntarily) are legally bound to apply. The treaty is supposed to ensure that the armaments transferred by the State parties do not end up in the hands of those who may use them to commit crimes. So far, out of 195 countries in the world, 105 States ratified the document, and 33 are signatories. → Arms Trade Treaty
The Trade Registers
Despite its dangerousness, the Arms Trade is not a commerce enough tracked. Each year all UN member states are requested to report information (voluntarily) on their annual import-export of major arms to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA). Few countries produce a complete yearly report, complicating proper monitoring of the flow. The United Nations and European Union charge specific sanctions to those who do not respect the current arms embargoes: EU states must not supply unfree countries, those involved in a (civil) war, with a high risk of corruption in military procurement. Furthermore, it is crucial to assess the possible risk that the military equipment could be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported. These are essential data to consider for evaluating the implementation and effects of national arms export laws and security policy-making. These assessments are not usually public, but they can contribute to mapping relations between actors in conflicts and their external supporters since the actual policies are not able to limit the smuggling. → UN Register of Conventional Arms