Arms sales shoot to record high

America takes the lion's share of $32 billion market

The global arms market got bigger last year and the United States remained the top international weapons exporter, selling more than Britain and Russia combined, the two countries which vie for second place.

But some experts believe the increase in the size of the market was a "blip", rather than a reversal of the trend, which has been steadily downwards. The British Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) predicts the world market will continue to decline by about 15 per cent through to 2000.

The news that the US remains the leader, by far, in global arms exports comes as its Congress prepares to finalise a new code of conduct on arms exports . The code will determine which countries are eligible to receive US military assistance and arms transfers. The President will have to provide Congress with a list of countries which meet required standards of democracy and human rights, which participate in the UN register of conventional arms and are not engaged in acts of armed aggression. In Britain Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, recently announced a new "ethical" arms export policy and France has written to European Union defence and foreign ministers encouraging them to follow Britain's lead. But critics of the arms trade remain sceptical, believing that national interest will always override ethical considerations.

According to the latest report by the US Congressional Research Service last week, global arms sales totalled $31.8bn (pounds 19.8bn), out of which sales to developing countries totalled $19.3bn.

The US sold $11.3bn worth of armaments during 1996, compared with Britain's $4.8bn and Russia's $4.6 bn. Of the US sales, $7.3bn worth - 64 per cent - went to developing countries. Of these, the biggest customers were India, which bought $2.5bn worth of arms last year, Saudi Arabia with $1.9bn, South Korea with $1.2bn and Indonesia with $1 bn. There has been widespread concern about human rights in all these countries - particularly Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

Andy McLean, of the Saferworld project, which monitors the international arms trade, said "with domestic [defence] procurement budgets decreasing, pressures are increasing to export weapons to unscrupulous regimes. There is an urgent need for effective international controls to overcome this problem and help ensure that the effects of weapons are considered above short-term commercial interests."

Mr McLean thought the apparent increase in the global market was a "blip". He said: "The CRS focuses on export agreements and not deliveries. The former figure is always higher because not everything agreed gets delivered."

Russia managed higher sales than the US to developing countries in 1995, but Richard Grimmett, who wrote the report, said this also seemed to have been a blip because Russia happened to have concluded some expensive contracts with some developing countries that year.

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