Noha Aboueldahab is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
While COVID-19 has sent markets reeling and shuttered businesses around the world, at least one industry has enjoyed business as usual: global arms companies.
Since March, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has signed off on 15 arms deals worth more than US$9-billion, some of them with oppressive regimes such as those in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s government announced that it would resume a multi-billion arms-export deal with Saudi Arabia, lifting a moratorium during the pandemic in April. The global appetite for selling and buying arms has remained healthy, too, despite calls for a global ceasefire, which Canada supports.
It is hard to take governments seriously in their efforts to devote vast resources to prioritizing security when they are simultaneously making multibillion-dollar arms deals, especially since such militarization actively undermines the ability of states to effectively eradicate COVID-19.
The situation in Yemen is proof. More than five years of war there have created a man-made humanitarian disaster that has unleashed two of the world’s worst cholera outbreaks, affecting millions. The country’s health facilities, already devastated by war, now have to grapple with another crippling infectious disease. In March, the U.S. even cut health and humanitarian aid to Yemen – but curiously continued to sell arms to the Arab military coalition fighting there. Many reports, including documentation by United Nations experts, have pointed to possible war crimes committed by this coalition and other warring parties in that conflict, with the highest number of civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes.
Meanwhile, Germany increased its arms sales this year, including a major deal with Egypt, making it the largest buyer of German weapons in the first quarter of 2020. India signed a contract with Israel allowing it to buy weapons worth US$116-million, even as the country grapples with high COVID-19 infection rates. In May, Mr. Trump fired State Department inspector general Steve Linick, who had almost completed an investigation into the lawfulness of U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
Such arms exporters cannot reconcile their support for a global ceasefire on the one hand and their continued support for militarization on the other. War profiteers, including governments that make a lot of money in arms sales, have already shown that they have little interest in heeding calls for solidarity.
A common attempt to justify these sales is the claim that they sustain many jobs, which are particularly vital during the pandemic. However, these claims have been widely debunked in the United States. A report by the Center for International Policy outlines how jobs generated by arms sales make up far less than what Mr. Trump claims; its director, William Hartung, recently noted that such jobs make up less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of U.S. employment.
Meanwhile, the use of such weaponry in wars in Yemen, Libya and other parts of the world continues to kill jobs – not to mention innocent civilians. Despite deadly consequences, the continued flow of Western arms to conflicts in the Middle East makes it painfully clear that if people don’t see a direct and immediate impact on them, they might not be galled by what should be seen the world over as a war crime.
The turn toward the securitization of humanitarian problems is evident in responses to the pandemic as well. Immediately after the virus began to affect European countries and the U.S., the rhetoric went from crisis-oriented to the language of war. Presidents and prime ministers around the world effectively declared themselves wartime leaders. The need for ventilators in New York was compared to the need for missiles. China was called upon to pay annual reparations, just as Germany did to Israel after the Second World War.
These kinds of analogies are harmful, detracting as they do from the much more important matter: eradicating the virus. But they also detract from the death and destruction caused by weapons in real conflicts around the world, not to mention the underlying structural problems that led to the failure of health systems to effectively confront the virus. This is particularly true for the Middle East, which is both the recipient of more than half of American arms exports and a COVID-19 hot spot.
Without a serious overhaul of enforcement mechanisms everywhere, from Canada and the U.S. to Germany and the U.K., no law will protect victims suffering this doubly lethal combination. Ultimately, skewed economic and national security interests combined with a lack of political will all mean that arms deals will continue as usual – leaving a bigger and darker stain on our collective history.
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