by Geeta Desai
April 14, 2014, marked the Global Day of Action on Military Spending. UN Special Rapporteur, Alfred de Zayas called on all country governments to make cuts in military expenditures and increase investments in nutrition, health, environmental protection and other major sustainable development challenges, instead. The Rapporteur’s call to action could not have come at a better time because according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global military spending levels are at an all-time high, reaching a total of $1.75 trillion in 2012.
Quite frankly, it blows my mind to think that most countries would have that kind of money to spend on the acquisition and deployment of weapons, given the competing responsibilities and demands within their country borders. Curious to know which countries placed such a premium on military spending, I decided to look it up. This is what I found: the United States spends the most (no surprise, there) with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and France, in that order, rounding up the top five spenders. In terms of military spending as a percentage of GDP, Saudi Arabia spends the highest (9.3%), Russia is second (4.1%), the US is third (3.8%) and France and China are fourth and fifth, spending 2.25% and 2.0% of their respective GDP. As a percent of the world’s total military spending, the US is responsible for 33% of the expenditures, by far the largest slice of the pie.
I expected the United States to be at the top of this list and I’m not exactly surprised that Russia is in the top five given that neither country has as yet outgrown its “Cold War” mentality. Additionally, the terror attacks against the US and consequent military engagements abroad, continue to shape its military budget. If the foreign policy pundits are to be believed, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see China on the list given their contention that China is positioning itself to dominate the world. But, what explains the presence of France and Saudi Arabia on this list? According to a recent report, President Francois Hollande’s government has reviewed the recent conflicts in Mali and Libya and feels that its level of defense spending maintains the country’s ability to react to a terrorist attack. Saudi military spending has doubled in the last ten years, according to SIPRI and Carina Solmirano, a senior researcher at SIPRI, said: “It seems that for the Gulf region, internal or domestic problems or the likelihood of problems like the Arab Spring, might have led to countries reinforcing military spending by giving security forces more resources, as a way to make them more loyal to the government.”
Okay, I’ll admit that in the world in which we live, there are genuine security needs that require investments in weapons, military personnel and in the general maintenance of vigilance and preparedness for action. But when is enough, enough? And, who decides when enough is enough?
So, I think that there are two things to consider here.
First, in each of the countries listed above, there are critical numbers of people whose basic human needs are unmet: In the US, 47 million Americans live in poverty; in Russia 18 million live in poverty with the gulf between the rich and the poor getting wider each year; in France, one in six people or over 11 million people live in poverty and social exclusion; in China, a staggering 99 million people fall below the government’s established poverty line and in Saudi Arabia, a quarter of the native Saudi population lives in abject poverty. For these people, investments in militarization are irrelevant; investments in health, education, housing, food and other daily infrastructure supports make the difference between life, ill-health and death. Admittedly, military spending is a small part of the national budgets of these countries, but the dollar amounts are ridiculously large and all five country governments should reassess the actual level of military need as opposed to the desire to overreach with the intention of stockpiling.
Second, it is commonly understood that weapons that are stockpiled usually find their way into the wrong hands and are the greatest contributing factor for conflicts in several dozen countries. As a matter of fact, April 2, 2014, marked the first anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. The Treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly for the first time set global standards for the transfer of weapons and efforts to prevent their diversion. It regulates all conventional arms within the categories of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers and small arms and light weapons. Among other provisions, the treaty – which will enter into force once it receives 50 ratifications – also includes a prohibition on the transfer of arms which could be used in the commission of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Of the five countries that lead in military spending only France has ratified the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
The UN has urged country governments to prepare national budgets that will implement the will of the people, based on representative opinion polling. We need to tell our elected officials that we want our taxes put towards the promotion of peace and sustainable development, not towards the purchase and stockpiling of weapons.
Geeta Desai is a member of the International Federation of University Women and has served as its representative to the UN. Currently, she is Advocacy Convener for Women Graduates-USA and writes a blog on the status of women. Additionally, as an Organizational Development consultant, she continues to provide capacity building support for international nonprofits.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.wg-usa.org/advocacyblog/2014/04/global-day-of-action-on-military-spending-invest-in-people-not-the-prospect-of-war/.