Ethics@Work: Up in arms

The arms trade is an ever-controversial one, and there are a variety of ethical approaches to it.

October 5, 2006 23:47
3 minute read.
hizbul weapons 88 298

hizbul weapons 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Control Arms, an arms-control lobby organized by a consortium of well-known human rights organizations, just published a fascinating report on the international arms trade. The report states: "The global arms trade provides weapons for legitimate national self-defense, peacekeeping and law enforcement, operating in accordance with international law. But, as this paper shows, it also provides arms to governments with track records of using weapons inappropriately and unlawfully against civilians in violation of international human rights law and humanitarian law." The arms trade is an ever-controversial one, and there are a variety of ethical approaches to it. A large number of "socially responsible investment funds" screen out all defense industry firms (or at least claim to). A nemesis to this Quaker-style approach is found in a classic of English literature, Bernard Shaw's play "Major Barbara." The anti-hero, arms magnate Andrew Undershaft, elevates his self-interested policy of selling to anyone with cash to an ethical principle, or more precisely a series of ethical principles, including: "Peace shall not prevail save with a sword in her hand" and "Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done." However, the most accepted approach, and the one most frequently found in export policies of democratic countries, adopts the approach implied by the Control Arms documents, which distinguishes between "legitimate national self-defense, peacekeeping and law enforcement" and "using weapons inappropriately and unlawfully against civilians." This is also the approach found in the Talmud and Jewish law. Interestingly, the Control Arms report does not find fault with the criteria of most countries' export policies. The main problem is with enforcement: the ability to ship parts and to outsource assembly creates a gaping hole in export regulations and allows advanced arms to reach rogue governments and non-governmental groups, including terror organizations. A press release by Amnesty International explains: "The globalization of the arms industry has opened up major loopholes in all current arms export regulations, allowing sales to human rights abusers and countries under arms embargoes." The report comes out in favor of an international arms control treaty. Human rights experts believe that a treaty will have a much better chance of being effectively enforced than the current patchwork of individual-country export controls, which leave gaping holes. Of course, Israelis will want to know how Israel fares in the report. Contrary to the belief of some Israelis, the large international human rights groups do not devote their entire attention to our tiny state, and Israel is not given any special prominence. However, Israel does have the distinction that among a number of brief mentions we appear on all sides of the question as a still minor, but increasingly important exporter whose arms trade would need to be regulated by any treaty; as an importer whose purchases are insufficiently monitored as they are used in what the report calls "apparent violation of international humanitarian law;" and as a victim of Palestinian armed groups and Hizbullah who, despite export controls, have acquired weapons used in human rights violations against Israelis. I consider this a reasonably fair assessment of Israel's stake in this issue, especially given that the focus of the report is not whether the existing criteria are adequate but rather whether they are adequately enforced. I would hardly expect such a report to go into a detailed discussion of whether Israel's terror-fighting activities conform to the laws of war (which is what international humanitarian law basically is) or whether these laws in fact provide an adequate ethical basis for a war on terror. I have to stop short of endorsing an international treaty, as I am not in a position to assess the chances that it will be enforced in an even-handed way and not be used to prevent Israel from obtaining weapons for self-defense. But the ethical distinction between national security and law enforcement on the one hand, and hostilities against civilians on the other, is a clear and justified one. It follows that arms exporters can not hide behind legal gimmicks like foreign subsidiaries, or exporting parts and disassembled weaponry. Any time the seller knows, or should know, that the weapons or parts being shipped are destined for criminals or human rights violations, the shipment is inappropriate. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.

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