Mouse against the elephant; campaigning against arms trade

Wendela de Vries
FriedensForum Mai 2010

Campaigning against arms trade easily appeals to the public mind because the idea that profit is made from war is unacceptable. It is important however to keep in mind that the difficulty in limiting arms trade is not just in that it is a profitable business. On policy level, arms trade is not an economic but a military and foreign relation issue. This is clearly shown by the fact that the arms industry is not subjected to WTO or EU free market rules. It is a business with great strategic and military importance. Not only money for businessmen but also power positions for countries in the international military pecking order are at stake. This makes arms trade even harder to tackle. But protest can be successful. Without having the illusion to put a quick end to a multi-billion dollar business, peace activists expose the bad aspects of arms trade and limit the freedom of trade as much as possible.


Arms fairs are an obvious target. Their true nature is often covered under names such as ‘conference’ or ‘exposition’. The International Training and Education Conference ITEC for example is selling military simulation equipment for such weapons as Hell Fire rockets and F16 fighter jets. Protests followed it through Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. As in most successful campaigns, its effectiveness did consist of combining street action (die-inns, picket lines), public information and lobby. The town council of Dutch city The Hague for example was successfully lobbied not to have a reception with the arms dealers. When ITEC came to Amsterdam in 2005 the major - presently running for prime minister in the Netherlands - declared ITEC "undesirable and in contradiction with the city's policy against aggression and violence". In Brussels a group of activists managed to enter the fair undercover and made movies for YouTube. ITEC decided not to come back to these cities. The British Campaign Against Arms Trade decided to target arms fair organiser and started a campaign against publisher Reed Elsevier, organiser of European fairs such as DSEi. Reed’s position as the number one publisher of medical and science journals made it possible to make a link to the medical and academic world and receive support from doctors, writers and academics. In the end Reed Elsevier felt forced to sell its arms fair department. When a protest can be linked to a consumer good, as in the Reed Elsevier case, it is more likely that you can extend the protests outside ‘normal’ peace movement circles.

Based on the assumption that consumer money is a source of power, disinvestment campaigns are growing in popularity over the last years. Banks are asked to ‘demilitarize’ their portfolio, making use of the possibility of the consumer to change bank. In some countries like Norway or the Netherlands where pension funds are big investors these are also campaigned at. Disinvestment campaigns have probably more potential than is used so far. Banks and pension funds are taken by surprise by the public demand for ethical policies and in many countries they are developing ethical standard now. There is room for peace organisations to influence this process. The bottom line should be no investment in weapons of mass destruction, which means nuclear weapons, and not in indiscriminate weapons which means land mines and cluster munition. Better of course is no investment in the controversial industrial arms sector at all. The Norwegian Pension Fund has a high ethical investment standard and is following this line. Other investors, for example in the Netherlands and Belgium, have banned the production of landmines and cluster munition from their portfolios. These investment are now even forbidden under Belgian law. However this exclusion of indiscriminate weapons is used as a sort of "greenwash" (maybe we should call it "camouflage wash") to satisfy the public opinion. There is still a lot of investment in the production of nuclear weapons and other military industry. In other countries, like Spain, new ethical policies are developed by Santander and BBVA bank that look good on paper but are not lived up to in reality. Campaign continues.

It is often said that military boycotts are not efficient. It is argued that if a country cannot buy its weapons it will start producing weapons itself. Research into the most well-known example of a long and widely supported arms boycott, that against South Africa in Apartheid times, shows that this is not true. Indeed South Africa did build up an arms industry, but only at great financial burden, which contributed to the downfall of Apartheid. Moreover, notwithstanding loopholes in the boycott, South Africa could neither produce nor buy everything it wanted. This limited its military flexibility of movement. Which for example at a certain moment forced the country into negotiations with Angola. In the 21th century it is even more difficult for countries to develop a completely self-sufficient arms industry. Only superpowers can build all advanced equipment on their own. Moreover a military boycott is a very strong political signal to a country that a military solution for its security problem is not accepted by the rest of the world.
This is the message of the present initiative for a military boycott of Israel. The most spectacular example of action against military support for Israel is that of the Raytheon 9, the nine activists from Derry (Ireland) who forced defence company Raytheon out of their city. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 the nine men learned that a Lebanese family of 28 was killed by a ‘bunker buster’ bomb build in their home city. In anger they occupied the Raytheon factory and hit it where it was most vulnerable: they damaged its computer network and so effectively stopped its international sales network. The fairy-tale like end of this story is that in court the nine men where released of charges by a jury which recognized that they had acted to prevent a bigger crime.
The strength of the Raytheon 9 campaign was that they had strong roots in the community and had been campaigning against the arms factory for some years already. Other activists were less lucky: some activist of the British Smash EDO campaign have been imprisoned for long time for occupying the EDO arms factory during Israeli Operation Cast Lead.

The juridical way of campaign effort goes to the improvement of arms export legislation, but the results give a mixed image. The European Union has by far the most advanced ethical criteria on arms export, in use since 1998 and juridical binding since 2009. It includes limitations on arms exports that 1-might aggravate internal or regional conflict, 2-could seriously hamper sustainable economic development or 3-could be used in human rights violations. A prposed ninth criteria referring to corruption never made it into the EU Common Criteria on Arms Export. Research has shown however that in recent years the EU Common Criteria left room for exports to countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka (just before the final offensive against the Tamil Tigers) Israel, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. The formulation of the criteria is left deliberately vague so that no clear legal conclusions can be drawn from it. Their application is depending on economic or political interest. All they do is set a rough ethical standard which is subject to political interpretation. In practice many controversial deals can only be stopped by a lot of public pressure. The experiences with the EU Common Criteria on Arms Export are important because the UN Arms Trade Treaty is being developed along the same framework. The conclusion must be that expectations for the results of an ATT should not be too high: governments will use it as an excuse ("What are these peaceniks complaining about? We now have an Arms Trade Treaty so all is right.") Controversial exports will still have to be campaigned on to get the arms export criteria applied in a strict way.

How successful are actions against arms trade? We are not naive. We do not think that we can stop the arms trade completely. In the end, we only stop the more-than-obviously bad cases, and even that not always. What we can do is exposing, making sure things do not happen in secret and do not happen undiscussed. With that we play a preventive role. If we were not there, things would probably be much worse.

Wendela de Vries
Wendela de Vries is political scientist and co-founder of the Dutch Campagne tegen Wapenhandel.