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How can we end the misery created by the global arms trade?

By Helen Mirren - posted Thursday, 23 October 2003

My television alter ego, Prime Suspect's Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, has to face violent lawlessness on a daily basis. But at the end of each episode, there is a resolution. The evildoers are unmasked, justice done and order restored.

In the real world, it is not so simple. Violence is not always controlled by the law. Justice is not always done. This year, around 500,000 people will die from armed violence - on average one per minute.

Millions live day-to-day in fear for their lives. They are victims of a dangerously unregulated global trade in arms.


Where do these weapons come from? An incredible 88 per cent of the world's arms are supplied by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - US, UK, Russia, France and China. More than two-thirds of the value of all arms sold are destined for Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

With the value of global authorised arms exports estimated at US $21 billion per year, arms exporters are making massive amounts of money out of this trade in deadly weapons.

Arms-exporting governments deny accountability for the death and suffering caused by the weapons trade, claiming they export only to responsible arms users. They point the trigger of blame at illegal users. Yet it is estimated that 80-90 per cent of all illegal small arms are initially manufactured and traded legally, in the state-sanctioned trade.

Many of these weapons end up in the wrong hands. They fuel conflict and abuse in the most unstable areas of the world.

I have seen first-hand the results of this trade, and the terrible damage weapons can do. I visited South Africa with Oxfam and met primary-school children such as Lydia, whose mother was shot dead in a car by unknown attackers. Another woman, Cecilia, told me how she was raped, shot, and blinded in one eye. Her son, who was sleeping next to her when she was attacked, was also shot. He survived.

Lydia and Cecilia's suffering is repeated in dozens of other countries throughout Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, which are awash with weapons. Each year, millions of weapons seep through porous and unguarded borders on every continent. There are a staggering 639 million small arms in the world, or one for every ten people.


The onus to control the proliferation of weapons lies on all governments that export or re-export arms. Rich governments are constantly urging developing countries to rely less on aid and to become accountable for improving their own national and regional security, economy, education, and health. Yet in what can only be seen as enormous hypocrisy, the rich countries urging poor ones to be more self-reliant are helping to fuel conflicts in the latter that destroy people's livelihoods and trap them in a cycle of violence and poverty.

In the past four years, the UK, France and the US earned more income from arms exports to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America than they provided in aid.

The hypocrisy cannot be allowed to go on. Rich governments must admit the role they play in the deadly global trade in arms. Organisations such as Oxfam Community Aid Abroad and Amnesty International Australia are calling for an Arms Trade Treaty to stop the flow of arms to abusers. The treaty must be agreed upon by governments around the world and provide a universal standard with which all arms exporters must comply.

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About the Author

Dame Helen Mirren is an Oxfam ambassador on conflict. She is star of the Prime Suspect series and the film Calendar Girls.

Related Links
Control Arms Campaign
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad
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