This July will see Britain host the annual G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland. Last time Britain hosted the G8 in 1998, tens of thousands of people converged on the conference centre in Birmingham to tell the world's most powerful people that they wanted to see an end to the international debts that were obstructing development for many countries in the global South.
Since then, every G8 meeting has seen protestors raise similar issues, and this year will be no different. Among the protests will be a march through Edinburgh organised by Make Poverty History, a huge coalition of charities and campaign organisations. As the name suggests, they want to see real and effective measures to eradicate global poverty involving not just debt cancellation, but also changes to unfair global trade rules that operate at the expense of developing countries.
Protest has focussed on the G8 because those countries effectively control financial institutions that determine the winners and losers in the global system. But they also represent something else: of the G8 nations, only Japan doesn't make it into the world's top ten arms exporters.
In 2003 alone, the G8 countries exported major conventional weapons worth in excess of US$24 billion. Whilst some of these exports were to other G8 or developed countries, the majority were to the developing world. Furthermore, the US Congressional Research Service estimates that of arms transfers to developing countries in 2003, around 89% came from just 5 members of the G8: the US, Russia, France, Britain and Germany.
It's fairly obvious that money which developing countries spend on fighter jets or missile launchers is money that isn't spent on health, education and poverty alleviation. The figures in this regard are alarming. According to the United Nations, seven developing countries spend more on the military than on health and education combined, with others coming close. In addition, small arms exports fuel conflicts, such as that in the Congo, with obvious and catastrophic impacts on development. In other places, military spending by one country can provoke a regional arms race, India and Pakistan being an obvious example.
But what right do western governments have to dictate how developing countries spend their money? It might be a valid question were it not for the enormous amounts the G8 nations spend on aggressively promoting arms sales. In 2001, the British government approved the sale of a military air traffic control system manufactured by BAE Systems to Tanzania. The system cost $40 million, yet half the population of Tanzania lacks access to clean water. International bodies criticised the deal, saying that a civilian system costing an eighth of the price would work far better, but Tony Blair himself insisted the deal should go ahead.
This is just a part of the support G8 leaders lend their own arms industries. CAAT has long campaigned against the existence of Britain's Defence Export Services Organisation, which puts a staff of 600 civil servants at the disposal of UK arms companies. In 2004, DESO spent £107,000 of taxpayers' money to 'represent the Ministry of Defence in support of the UK Defence Industry' at just one arms fair, the Africa Aero and Defence exhibition in South Africa. DESO maintains offices around the world to help sell arms to countries that can ill afford them, and who often have poor human rights records.
Britain is not alone, though. All the G8 countries with established arms industries also have similar support mechanisms, including facilities to underwrite arms sales. In the US, the arms industry benefits from tax breaks, low-cost loans, export credit guarantees, research and development costs paid for by the taxpayer and Military Aid to developing countries to buy US weapons. The Italian state actually owns a 32% share in Italy's largest arms company, Finmeccanica, whilst the French state also has shares in Thales. Most Russian arms exports are made through Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms exporter. In February 2005, Chancellor SchrÃ¶der of Germany took a six-day trip to the Middle East with arms company executives, specifically to sell German defence goods. This is normal behaviour for G8 ministers.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a revolving door in all these countries between the defence ministries and the arms companies at the highest level. Whilst the US, UK and others push 'free trade' policies on the global south - telling them to cut back on welfare spending and open their markets - a system of corporate welfare exists for arms giants like Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, EADS and Thales.
Whilst G8 agreements like the global non-proliferation initiative seek to stop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, it has been an anathema to the G8 countries to seek to control more conventional weapons. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has talked of presenting an Arms Control Treaty to this year's G8 summit. The details are not yet available, but whilst controls on arms sales are to be welcomed, its is hard to see how they can be effective given the G8 countries' continuing financial and political support for the global arms trade. If it is to make a real impact on poverty, the G8 must change its agenda substantially, and end its complicity in pushing arms to the rest of the world. James O'Nions is a researcher with the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade. CAAT's new G8 briefing can be found at www.caat.org.uk/g8