Church Action on the Arms Trade

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor June 2001 Volume 22 Issue 2

An Ecumenical Conference on the Arms Trade, sponsored by the Christian Council of Sweden and the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation, was held in Gothenburg, Sweden at the time of the European Union Summit meeting, June 15-17, 2001. Ernie Regehr presented the opening address on the basic concerns and approaches that guide church action on the arms trade.

A demilitarization imperative

I don’t imagine that many of us have committed Article 26 of the UN Charter to memory. It is one of those Charter provisions honoured primarily in the breach. But it does instruct the Security Council to establish a “system for the regulation of armaments” in order to “promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources” (emphasis added). Well, the Security Council has not made much headway on that “system for the regulation of armaments” and the permanent members of the Council have in their own national practices not exactly modelled security arrangements based on the least possible diversion of the earth’s precious resources to military purposes.

Even so, Article 26, in a UN-ese sort of way, is not a bad summary of the churches’ approach to peace and security. Diverse Christian traditions have responded variously to the defence and security arrangements of states, and to the state’s exercise of its monopoly on the resort to the use of force in carrying out its responsibility to provide security and maintain order, but a common and enduring thread in the mainstream ecumenical movement has been a commitment to an agenda of demilitarization – that is to say, broadly speaking, churches have been committed to the pursuit of peace and security with the least possible recourse to lethal military force.

At its first Assembly1 in 1948, the WCC said unequivocally that “war as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of Jesus.…” It went on to say that war is “a sin against God” and a “degradation” of humankind. In the early 1980s with the escalation of nuclear tensions, the WCC declared the production, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons to be “a crime against humanity.” At the dawn of the post-Cold War era, in a world convocation in Seoul (1990), and in the context of its theme of “justice, peace and the integrity of creation,” the WCC assigned priority to the demilitarization of international relations and the promotion of non-violent forms of national defence. And in 1994 the WCC included in its Working Principles for the Programme to Overcome Violence a commitment to “move toward the de-legitimization of war and violence.”

The emerging doctrine of human security reflects another core value of churches – that is, that the focus of peace and security policy and preparations is to be on the safety and well being of people and communities. WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser, in his address to the 1994 consultation in Northern Ireland on non-violence, anticipated the human security theme, reminding his audience that “security is not only a military problem referring to the maintenance of order and the integrity of the State,” but serves all human life.

Of course, secure and functional States are indispensable for assuring the safety of people in their homes, but the reverse is also the case: local safety and the well-being of citizens in their homes are also indispensable to state stability and even inter-state security. The major powers, individually and collectively, have been slow to recognize that human security is a vital strategic interest, preferring to think of it more as a general, even optional, humanitarian goal. But in the post-Cold War era it has become increasingly clear that the presence of persistent and localized instability, growing out of human insecurity, has strategic significance. To ignore local suffering and abuse is, most obviously, to deny our common humanity, but it is also to ignore the central importance of honouring universal obligations and respecting international standards promoting international stability. In a context in which people, ideas, and capital are not readily confined within state boundaries, the prospects of confining and “isolating chaos with a cordon sanitaire” should not be regarded as particularly realistic (Guehenno 1998-99, p. 10). In his Foreword to Overcoming Violence Konrad Raiser makes the same point when he says that “the flames of violence have leapt over the walls built by the rich to protect them from the poor.”

So the churches have insisted that global strategic stability must ultimately be based on the evolving global framework of laws and standards, which in turn must be built on shared values and obligations to protect and honour the person – leading one analyst to conclude that “upholding international moral standards could become [and the churches say should become] a strategic goal” (Guehenno 1998-99, pp. 10-11).

Soft power and the impotence of military might

This summary of what the ecumenical movement has promoted since the mid-point of the previous century begs the question of the capacity of the churches to “walk the talk” and of just how effective they really are. Stalin famously asked how many military divisions the Pope commanded – a nice, cryptic summary of one take on the hard power/soft power debate. In Europe and North America we live amidst extraordinary accumulations of sophisticated military technology and firepower. Our societies have diverted large quantities of human and material resources to military purposes in the interests of “hard power” and realism, but, in fact, the 1990s have regularly exposed the essential impotence of military firepower – epitomised by nuclear weapons, whose capacity to annihilate makes them instruments of great terror, but not of persuasion. While the West possesses more conventional military power than any other combination of military forces, that power has not been of practical value in the face of genocide in Rwanda, crimes against humanity in Kosovo, the defiance of international norms and standards in Iraq, or Sudan’s use of antiquated Antonov turboprop bomber aircraft to drop crude molotov cocktail-type bombs on unarmed civilians. Indeed, the impotence of military excess has given “soft power” new credibility.

Information, communication, diplomatic skills, mobilizing public opinion, cooperation among like-minded states and civil society, public debate. and consensus building are all tools of “soft power.” The exercise of “soft power” especially requires an alert, engaged, and sustainable civil society sector with a capacity for ongoing research and education, a sense of commitment and relevance, and persistent preparedness. The churches, notably our hosts in the Christian Council of Sweden, and civil society organizations like the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation are key guardians of soft power. Indeed, the work and witness of the churches and civil society in Sweden, Norway, Canada, and other like-minded states are in no small measure responsible for the comparatively progressive and responsible roles of those states in pursuit of international peace and security. The national pursuit of constructive measures in support of disarmament (such as Sweden’s role in the New Agenda movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons) and the peaceful resolution of political conflicts are sustainable only when they are supported by dynamic, well-organized, and well-funded, peace and justice organizations and communities. Peacemaking diplomacy will be most effective when it is seen to be operating out of domestic contexts that include informed and supportive publics with the capacity to give persistent and strategic expression to peacebuilding and human security values.

It is increasingly understood that the “soft power” exercised by states and civil society is as fundamental to constructive social and political change at the international level as it is in local communities. The successful campaign for a treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines is the most obvious example of soft power at work. Peace agreements that are not understood, welcomed, and trusted by the people on whose behalf they are negotiated will and do fail. Formal commitments to international human rights standards by governments not backed by a popular will are routinely ignored, even in the face of external military threats. Disarmament and arms control agreements that are premised only on balancing military power, rather than on a popular insistence that disarmament is an essential condition of sustainable peace, are unlikely to produce military reductions, only mutually tolerated increases – as four decades of Cold War arms control proved.

The fundamental role and obligation of the churches is to contribute to a dynamic global political culture that generates constructive non-military peace and security policy options and makes them politically sustainable. Peace and security are built out of positive social, political, and economic conditions. Disarmament and the demilitarization of national and international conflict are key to preventing the transformation of political conflict into armed conflict. In many societies churches and other faith groups are primary elements of civil society, and while religion is tragically a frequent agent of conflict, faith communities as social institutions have enormous potential for constructive soft power influence.

Rules-based accountability

Among the seemingly endless list of items on the demilitarization agenda that require urgent attention, the trade in conventional weapons has an enduring place. As one of the least controlled elements of modern military activity, the arms trade begs attention from the international ecumenical movement.

It is not entirely correct to speak about international arms transfers as unregulated. National regulations of varying degree and effect are certainly the norm, but the internationalization of controls and restraint must be the final aim of arms trade control. There are dual challenges of developing a rules-based international arms procurement and transfer environment, and of linking the application of national and international rules to credible accountability mechanisms.

The good news is that a variety of measures already exist at national and international levels to define and restrict the kinds of arms that may be legally acquired and owned, who may own such legal arms, and under what conditions they may be used or transferred to another user – measures that apply both to individuals and states.2

In relation to small arms, a particularly destructive element of the international arms trade and the subject of current and focused international concern, most states have put in place some restrictions on individual possession, have defined categories of prohibited firearms, have restricted the purposes of lawful firearms ownership, and have defined limited conditions under which legal arms may be used. Although such restrictions are quite common, they are certainly not universal in law or practice.

A variety of restrictions also apply to State possession of arms and to the rights of States to acquire arms from external sources. Current international law allows individual states to define their own security needs, but that does not mean they can acquire any and every kind of weapon they think might serve their security interests.

The most obvious example, weapons of mass destruction, are prohibited. No state may possess chemical or biological weapons, and non-nuclear weapon states party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapon states in the NPT are under a legal obligation to eliminate their arsenals. There are also absolute prohibitions on State use of some arms in the small arms and light weapons (SALW) category, notably anti-personnel landmines and certain excessively injurious weapons.

The numbers or levels of weapons that states can legitimately possess are limited, although not in law. Excessive and destabilizing accumulations of weapons3 are at least a concern of the international community, with the general proviso being that levels of armaments should not exceed those required for legitimate defence and security needs.4 The arms transfer policies of exporting states generally include provisions, even if they are not consistently applied, to restrict weapons transfers to states that are in serious violations of human rights standards, and that pose a threat to regional peace and stability. In some instances the UN Security Council has decided to universalize restrictions on military transfers to certain states by establishing arms embargoes.5 In other instances, states within a region have agreed to self-imposed limits on acquisitions within that region (i.e., The ECOWAS Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons).

The point is that universal norms and standards are struggling to emerge and to bring the arms trade into some semblance of collective control. The churches’ vision of universal justice and the universal sovereignty of God must find expression or application in just such a mundane and profane activity as the worldwide circulation of weapons of war.

Reducing demand

A central focus and objective of the churches must be to encourage and support the development of an effective international regulatory and control regime for arms transfers.6 However, the small arms debate has taught us that supply control can not be effective in situations of high demand.

The effective control of small arms depends finally on social, political, and economic conditions that discourage their acquisition and use. Even in the context of emerging international norms, regulations, and laws to control SALW, where conditions are such that individuals, communities, and even states believe that to avoid disaster and advance their interests they are obliged to acquire and use such weapons, more regulation and more intensified police enforcement measures will not succeed in preventing illicit possession and use. Many individuals, communities, and states do acquire and use weapons because they genuinely believe (often wrongly) they have no other option.

Thus, despite their devastating, cumulative impact, under certain predictable conditions small arms are widely believed to expand the options of the user. Control will not be effective in the face of such demand. Demand must be reduced through social, political, and economic changes that create other options and reduce the “need” for SALW. The pursuit of such change engages a whole range of peacebuilding, development, governance, and social justice imperatives.7

The same integration of demand reduction efforts with supply-side controls is essential to deal effectively with weapons at the other end of the weapons scale – notably weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. The technology is widely available and, in the end, decisions not to acquire ballistic missiles are voluntary (based on perceptions of national interests and obligations). A growing list of states does or could have access to these technologies of instant intercontinental destruction, and whether or not they act on that capacity depends finally on their own perceptions of self-interest and of the common interest. Israel, India, and Pakistan have thus decided to acquire both nuclear weapons and missiles of expanding range. South Africa, on the same grounds of self-interest and the common interest, has only recently decided to forego the pursuit of such a capacity.

In arms control, demand tends to trump control. Efforts to control access to weapons that are not accompanied by measures to mitigate strong demand are in the long run not likely to be successful. The central insight of peacebuilding is that peace and disarmament do not endure through enforcement but through the building of political, social, and economic conditions conducive to restraint and stability. Regulatory and control regimes are important elements of stable security conditions, but as long as adverse social, political, and economic conditions produce a strong demand for weapons, supply-side controls will have limited success.

The same demand reduction focus that is relevant to small arms and WMD must accompany efforts to control the international trade in conventional weapons. Conventional arms will not be controlled by supplier cartels. Technologies and production facilities are widely available and states will exercise procurement restraint based on perceptions of national interests and obligations, and regional security arrangements and conditions.

Many factors help to reduce the demand for weapons and thus control the arms trade. In addition to building the necessary social, political, and economic conditions for peace and security, demand reduction requires promoting accountable governance, ameliorating regional insecurities, and challenging the double standard of non-proliferation.

Governance: While too often overlooked, one indispensable element of demand reduction is support for the emergence of democratically accountable governments. High levels of arms demand are a prominent feature of unaccountable, repressive regimes that ignore the security of their citizens in favour of provocative policies aimed at regime aggrandizement or survival.

Regimes out of step with both the international community and their own citizens are usually inclined to try to intimidate both with increasingly threatening postures and practices, internationally and domestically. Despite the dangers, the aim of diplomacy must obviously be to draw “outlaw” states8 into compliance with international norms and to encourage internal democratization. A particular focus of engagement must be the strengthening of civil society and the impetus toward public participation and democracy.

In the end, the only credible long-term hedge against high levels of demand for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction is an emboldened indigenous civil society that claims the right and acquires the capacity to give direct expression to alternative national interests and aspirations. States eschew extremism, not in response to external military threats, but in response to the emergence of an internal civil society that supports moderation and seeks a place of respect within the international community. In any state in which the people define public need, the demand is more likely to be for schools and hospitals than for strategic missiles.

But just who is defining national and collective needs in the United States and NATO? Some obviously think you can have it both ways – not only missiles and schools, but missiles for us and not for them, which gets us to the double standard problem (see below).

Regional insecurity: It is a truism that the demand for arms is highest in regions of intractable regional conflict. The Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan conflicts both date back to the end of World War II and both have remained hot conflicts and have involved hot wars; both have provoked not only conventional arms stockpiles, but also nuclearization. A call for new approaches to regional security and conflict resolution in instances such as these is both relevant and urgent, but unfortunately calling for change is a lot easier than delivering alternatives. Nevertheless, the extent to which the international community and its security and peacemaking institutions can credibly address enduring regional conflicts is the extent to which we can expect real reductions in the demand for conventional arms, as well as WMD and the means of their delivery.

The double standard: The double standard is most obvious in the case of WMD. The international community, prominently led by the countries of the NATO nuclear alliance, cannot credibly say it is illegitimate for Iraq to acquire a ballistic missile capability, or for India and Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, if others claim that right for themselves (and if Iraq is not party to any international agreement that prohibits it from acquiring missiles, and India and Pakistan are not parties to the NPT). As well, militarily advanced and supplier states are not credible in their efforts to establish universal restrictions on international transfers when they tolerate no move to set international standards to restrict their access to weapons through procurement from domestic production.


In summary, churches have tended to see effective control of the arms trade depending on: 1) the development of consistent and universal international standards (holding all states – importers and exporters – to the same standard of behaviour); 2) clear commitments and actions to address the conditions that produce demand for such weapons; and 3) reinforcement of the principles of interdependence and mutual security with unambiguous commitments to radically reduce reliance on and the resort to military force. So we are back to the demilitarization agenda. A January 1993 action by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) on arms transfers and proliferation nicely summarizes that agenda:

We are called to oppose all death-dealing and dehumanizing forces through our commitment to a theology of life. Conversion towards the demilitarization of international relations, away from militarism and national security doctrines and systems, and into a culture of non-violence as a force for change and liberation … involves fundamental redirection of individual lives, opposition to militarism, a new relationship between North and South, dismantling of military production facilities and bases, and the creation of new opportunities for those who are trapped either – and most directly – as victims of militarization in countries receiving arms or – more indirectly – as producers with little chance of alternative employment in arms selling countries. Metanoia means conversion and redirection of life. It is the antithesis of the oppression and fear which are so manifestly the result of the huge scale of military spending and arms transfers.




  1. These brief historical references are drawn from the booklet Overcoming Violence, which collects related statements and actions from 1994 to 2000 and includes a historical sketch by Dr. Raiser.
  2. See Regehr 2001 and Gillard 2001 (background document for the draft “Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers”)
  3. According to the 1997 UN Panel of Experts Report, A/52/298, p. 14, section IV. Nature and Causes of Excessive and Destabilizing Accumulations of Small Arms and Light Weapons (para 37): “Accumulations of small arms and light weapons become excessive and destabilizing: (a) when a State, whether a supplier or recipient, does not exercise restraint in the production, transfer and acquisition of such weapons beyond those needed for legitimate national and collective defence and internal security; (b) When a State, whether a supplier or recipient, cannot exercise effective control to prevent the illegitimate acquisition, transfer, transit or circulation of such weapons; (c) When the use of such weapons manifests itself in armed conflict, in crime, such as arms and drug trafficking, or other actions contrary to the norms of national or international law.
  4. Part of the utility of the term “illicit” should be that it is not a synonym for “illegal.” In much of the literature and much of the discourse in the current UN small arms process, the term “illicit” is taken to mean simply “against the law.” At a minimum, illicit transfers refer to those transfers which are against the law of at least one of the affected countries (the supplier, the recipient, or a transit state). In other words, military transfers from a state to a non-state actor in another country may not be against the law of the supplier state, but if it violates the laws of the recipient state it is an illicit transfer. But the concern about “excessive and destabilizing accumulations” suggests that there can also be weapons transactions that are perfectly legal in all states concerned, but that should still be regarded as illicit. Weapons transfers that produce destabilizing accumulations are likely to be within the laws and regulations of the supplier and recipient states, but if the transfer destabilizes a region and undermines the security of other states, it must also be regarded as an illicit transfer.
  5. Current examples (as of October 2000) include embargoes against “grossly abusive non-state groups” in Angola, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, as well as a number of states such as Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea (Human Rights Watch, 2001 World Report).
  6. To that end, the Commission of Nobel Peace Laureates’ Initiative to Control Arms Transfers has put forward a draft Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers. The proposal is currently sponsored by a group of international NGOs: the American Friends Service Committee, The Arias Foundation, Amnesty International, BASIC, the Federation of American Scientists, OXFAM GB, Project Ploughshares, and Saferworld.
  7. The IANSA founding document refers to several kinds of initiative that can be taken to reduce demand: reversing cultures of violence and promoting cultures of peace, creating norms of non-possession, reintegration of former combatants, addressing issues of impunity, embedding community-based small arms control programs in development and anti-poverty measures. The challenge is to convert these broad, general objectives into credible policy proposals and concrete actions. The draft program of action debated at the UN conference PrepCom is essentially silent on demand issues, save for a brief reference to the need to “promote a culture of peace” (II,39). Efforts will be made to get the conference at least to acknowledge the OAU Bamako Statement of November 2000, which made the point that “it is vital to address the problem of the illicit proliferation, circulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons in a comprehensive, integrated, sustainable and efficient manner through: …the promotion of structures and processes to strengthen democracy, the observance of human rights, the rule of law and good governance, as well as economic recovery and growth; the promotion of conflict prevention measures and the pursuit of negotiated solutions to conflicts; and the promotion of comprehensive solutions … that include … supply and demand aspects” (Para V.2.).
  8. See, for example, Haass and O’Sullivan 2000.


Gillard, Emanuela 2001, “What is Legal? What is Illegal?: Limitations on Transfers of Small Arms under International Law.”

Guehenno, Jean-Marie 1998-99, “The Impact of Globalization on Strategy,” Survival: The IISS Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, Winter, pp. 5-19.

Haass, Richard N. and O’Sullivan, Meghan L. 2000, “Terms of Engagement: Alternatives to Punitive Policies,” Survival: The IISS Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, Summer, pp. 113-135.

Regehr, Ernie 2001, Small Arms and Light Weapons: A Global Humanitarian Challenge, Project Ploughshares Working Paper 01-4, Waterloo.

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