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Why is New Zealand laying out the welcome mat for these merchants of carnage?

Arms traders have gathered this week in Auckland for a weapons expo. Kiwis should be standing up to the global arms trade, not embracing it, writes Thomas Gregory.

This week Auckland is playing host to the New Zealand Defence Industry Association Forum at the ANZ Viaduct Centre, bringing together arms dealers from around the world for what is essentially a glorified weapons exhibition.

This year the forum is sponsored by Lockheed Martin, who recently gained congressional approval to sell 600 Patriot-PAC-3 air defence missiles in a deal estimated to be worth $5.4 billion.

As well as being the world’s largest weapon’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin were recently awarded a $446 million contract to upgrade the Te Mana and Te Kaha frigates – a process that is running behind and massively over-budget.  

A Lockheed Trident missile. Photo: US Department of Defense

A Lockheed Trident missile. Photo: US Department of Defense

It is easy to see why the government might want a slice of this very lucrative pie. Figures released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show that the total value of the global arms trade in 2014 was at least US$94.5 billion – the actual figure is almost certain muchly higher – and that the combined revenue of the world’s leading weapons manufacturers was more than US$400 billion.

But there comes a point when the lives of innocent people must be put before military prestige and economic greed. Many of us were shocked to discover our own exposure to the global arms trade earlier this year when it was revealed that a big chunk of the money we had put aside for our retirement was invested in companies producing cluster bombs, landmines and nuclear weapons.

The steady stream of horrifying images and devastating news reports that have poured out of Yemen this past year should have provided an urgent wake-up call to anyone who is yet to be convinced about the chaos and carnage caused by the global arms trade.

This conflict has been raging for less than two years but already more than 10,000 civilians have been killed or injured, and at least three million people have been forcibly displaced.

The situation is now so dire that the United Nations has described it as a “humanitarian catastrophe“, warning that more than 21 million people are in need of aid or assistance. These concerns have been echoed by the aid agencies working desperately to provide some sort of relief, with Oxfam arguing that the country’s infrastructure lies in tatters and Save the Children declaring that one in three under-fives is suffering from acute malnutrition.

What is particularly disturbing about these statistics is the fact our allies in the region are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, with one report suggesting that a third of Saudi-led strikes have hit civilian targets, including schools, hospitals and mosques.

In one particularly notorious incident, an Oxfam warehouse containing vital humanitarian aid was destroyed by Saudi planes even though they had been given the coordinates in advance of the attack. More recently, an airstrike in Hodeidah is reported to have killed 26 civilians and injured another 60 people during an attack on Houthi rebels occupying the city’s presidential palace.

It is important to recognise that these are not innocent mistakes or unexpected errors. These airstrikes are thought to be responsible for at least 60 percent of the civilians killed in this campaign, with Amnesty International accusing the Saudi-backed coalition of “failing to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects”.

Researchers from Human Rights Watch have documented at least 70 airstrikes that were unlawful because planners deliberately targeted civilian objects or failed to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets. They also found evidence that seven different types of internationally-banned cluster munitions have been used in at least 19 separate incidents.

Rather than condemn these unlawful acts, the international community has opted to aid and abet the perpetrators by increasing the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. As well as sending military officials to provide advice on targeting techniques, the UK has licensed more than £3.3bn of arms sales to the Saudis, including British-made combat aircraft, precision guided munitions and electronic surveillance equipment. The United States has sold more than $100 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since Obama took office, including a recent $1.3 billion deal that included 22,000 bombs and munitions.

These deals have been condemned by politicians and activists from across the political spectrum. In the UK, two select committees have called on the government to suspend all arms sales to Riyadh, expressing concern that “support for the coalition, principally through arms sales, is having the effect of conferring legitimacy on its actions”.

In the United States, Senator Chris Murphy led a bipartisan challenge to the most recent contract, noting that ‘there is really no way this bombing campaign could happen without United States participation’.

Unfortunately, we have not seen the same level of debate in New Zealand, despite the valiant efforts of protestors to draw attention to the cause.

Although our contribution to the global arms trade may be relatively small, a number of Kiwi companies are intimately involved with the production of armaments.

New Zealand has a proud reputation for doing for what is right, even if it means going against the grain and standing up to our allies. Rather than using our status to fight for peace and justice in an increasingly dark and dangerous world, it seems that the government is much more interested in cosying up to the rich and powerful while finding new ways to make a quick buck from the suffering of others.

Dr Thomas Gregory is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He will be joining the March for Peace this Saturday 19 November, beginning in Aotea Square at 2pm

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