As the debate over gun control intensifies in the United States, work continues on an international treaty to regulate the global arms trade. On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly voted to reopen negotiations on the treaty. The United States dropped its opposition after stonewalling talks in July, a move that prompted critics to accuse President Obama of caving to congressional Republicans and the National Rifle Association in an election year. “I have not seen anywhere else in the world a gun lobby that has the same level of influence on its own government as the NRA does in the United States,” says Andrew Feinstein, author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” and a former African National Congress member of Parliament in South Africa. “The U.S. buys and sells almost as much weaponry as the rest of the world combined. So what happens in the U.S. is going to have enormous impact on the rest of the world.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As the debate over gun control intensifies in the United States, work continues on an international treaty to regulate the global arms trade. On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly voted to reopen negotiations on the treaty. The National Rifle Association has been a leading opponent of the deal.
To talk more about this, we go to London to speak with Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. He’s working on a film version of the book. Feinstein is a former member of the African National Congress and member of Parliament in South Africa.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! As you—as we are now in this aftermath of the massacre at the elementary school in Connecticut, Andrew Feinstein, and after a week the NRA spoke out, saying that every school in America should have an armed guard, what is your response?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: To be quite honest, observing the response of the NRA to this awful tragedy from—from a distance, from outside the United States, it seems inexplicable. It verges on the crazy. To suggest that the best way to deal with a bad guy with a gun, as Mr. LaPierre put it, is to have a good guy with a gun completely loses sight of the real picture, which is to ensure that the bad guy, as he calls him, doesn’t have access to the gun, which, to someone like myself who researches now for over 12 years the global arms trade and spends a lot of time in the U.S., seems commonsense, seems so obvious. But the NRA seems to be part of a massive group of vested interests that don’t want to see any change to the status quo because it’s a multi-trillion-dollar business.
And it occurs within the context of what many years ago C. Wright Mills called the “military metaphysic.” And just listening to your news headlines at the beginning of your show, to hear about the deployment of U.S. troops in 35 countries in Africa, the continent from which I come, my continent is perceived by the United States through a military prism. Similarly, domestically within the U.S., it seemed, until the tragedy at Sandy Hook, that these issues weren’t even up for debate. And to those of us who would like to see a far better-regulated arms trade, a highly regulated arms trade, because the reality at the moment is that the global trade in weapons is regulated less than the global trade in bananas. And just as we regulate things that can be harmful to our health—tobacco being the most obvious one—surely the guns that kill us need to be extremely highly regulated, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, working on the film on the same subject, also a former ANC member of the South African Parliament. He’s speaking to us from London. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein, can you lay out what the links are between the global arms trade, as you discuss it in your book, The Shadow World, and the kinds of mass shootings we’ve seen here in the U.S., and most recently the one in Newtown, Connecticut?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. The global arms trade is a $1.74 trillion-a-year business. That’s $250 for every person on the planet. And the profit motive behind the global arms trade is absolutely crucial. This is a business that is about big, big money. The trade contributes around 40 percent of all corruption in all global trade. So its impact on countries, on governments, on ordinary individuals in terms of the economic opportunity costs are absolutely massive.
Now, you will find that many spokespeople for the trade would try to distinguish between the legal or formal trade, on the one hand, and the illegal or illicit trade, on the other. I argue in the book that this distinction is a fallacy, that the boundaries are in fact extremely fuzzy and that the licit and the illicit are very closely intertwined, in addition to which the industry is largely protected because of its very close links to governments, to intelligence agencies, obviously to the military, and to lawmakers. So it is very seldom—even with the inadequate regulations that exist globally around the trade in weapons, it is very, very seldom that people who break those regulations are actually brought to book. To give you an example, we’ve recorded 502 violations of U.N. arms embargoes since they were introduced. Two of those have resulted in any legal action whatsoever. One resulted in a conviction.
Now, the situation that pertains at a global or international level has very many similarities with the domestic situation, particularly in the U.S., because let’s—let’s bear in mind while discussing this that the U.S. buys and sells almost as much weaponry as the rest of the world combined. So what happens in the U.S. is going to have enormous impact on the rest of the world. And what happens domestically, in terms of the ownership of weaponry within the U.S., really does, as I say, reflect the global trade in arms, in that we see it’s a $3.5 billion-a-year industry. And here we’re talking about smaller weaponry—about handguns, about assault rifles, semi-automatic weapons, the sorts that are used in the tragedy at Sandy Hook and all of the others that we’ve seen over the years throughout the U.S.
But the NRA, the gun sellers, the gun users seem to be afforded an extraordinary level of protection by government, by law enforcement authorities, just as happens on the global level. And part of this is because of the revolving door of people between, for instance, the NRA and government. Recent figures suggest that 15 of 28 officials in the NRA came from—sorry, lobbyists in the NRA came from important positions within government dealing with some of these same issues, so that the sorts of decisions being made by government are being informed disproportionately by those who want guns to be unregulated, by those who are making massive profits out the suffering of the victims of gun crime.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein, can you talk about some of the people whom you discuss in the book who are some of the key involved in global arms trade—for instance, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and is now the head of intelligence in Saudi Arabia?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. Let’s use two examples. Prince Bandar would be the perfect example. Prince Bandar, while ambassador to the U.S., was used by the Saudi government to negotiate a wide range of arms deals around the world, which included the biggest arms deal in history, a deal called the al-Yamamah deal between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia worth 43 billion British pounds. Around six billion pounds of bribes were paid on that deal alone. Over one billion pounds of those bribes flowed through Prince Bandar’s accounts that were held in Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., as it then was. Bandar describes a 15-minute conversation with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in which he says he told the prime minister that the Saudis had certain special needs, the prime minister said she fully understood that, and that was the end of the negotiation, the easiest negotiation he’s ever had for an arms deal. Prince Bandar has effectively acted as bag man on all sorts of international arms transactions going back to the Iran-Contra imbroglio of the Reagan administration, up until fairly recent times. Bandar today, as you mention, is head of state intelligence, state security in the Saudi government, which is not only a position of massive influence on the levels of human rights abuses and repression that is conducted by the Saudi state, but is also crucial to the military role that the Saudi state plays, particularly in the Middle East and particularly on behalf of the United States of America, which is why the Obama administration is in the middle of negotiations for a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia totaling $60 billion.
Now, let me give you one other example very quickly. And that’s the example of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer sometimes called the “Merchant of Death.” Bout now sits—quite correctly, in my opinion—in a jail in the United States. What was barely mentioned in his trial for his gun trafficking around the world, in most of the world’s worst conflicts, is that for three years, between 2003 and 2005, while there was an Interpol warrant out for Bout’s arrest, Bout’s companies and Bout’s planes were flying weaponry, equipment and supplies into Baghdad airport on behalf of the United States Department of Defense and U.S. defense contractors. Now, this is why I say the legal and illegal trade in weapons are inextricably intertwined. And Bout is just perhaps the best-known example of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of arms dealers around the world who play these duplicitous roles and who work on behalf of not only some of the world’s worst warlords, but also the world’s most powerful governments.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein, Viktor Bout is known as the Merchant of Death for running what the U.N. and the U.S. say was an intentional arms trafficking network—an international arms trafficking network. In April, during a pre-sentencing telephone interview with Voice of Russia, Bout maintained his innocence, saying all arms suppliers in the U.S. would be in prison, too, if the same standards were applied across the board. Take a listen.
VIKTOR BOUT: I am innocent. I don’t commit any crime. There is no crime to sit and talk. If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, then you’re going to, you know, jail all those arms dealers in America who are selling the arms and ending up killing Americans. They are involved even more than me.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Viktor Bout speaking from jail, Andrew Feinstein.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: The reality of what Bout says is that what he was doing was breaking laws where they exist. He broke countless U.N. arms embargoes. The situation in the U.S. is that many arms dealers, either Americans or working for the American government, American defense contractors, similarly break many arms laws around the world. A particular reading of the U.S. government’s own arms exports policies would suggest that because of the human rights violations that are recorded annually in Saudi Arabia, the United States itself shouldn’t be selling weaponry to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But as I mentioned, we’re in the process of a $60 billion arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
In terms of U.S. arms dealers, the regulations are, in my opinion, minimal. Many of those regulations themselves are violated by people transacting in weaponry across the U.S. and across the world. Who are those who face justice, like Viktor Bout? Who are those who don’t? Bout, as I’ve mentioned, was protected by U.S. authorities and U.S. intelligence agencies for a significant period of his career selling arms into Liberia, into Angola, into the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc., etc. Similarly, many dealers in the United States itself who transgress laws, minimal as they are, very seldom face the legal consequences of their actions, which is one of the reason why the domestic situation in the U.S. mirrors the global situation in the rest of the world.
And the only way to address this, the only way to keep our children safe in schools like Sandy Hook and around the country and around the world, is if in the biggest buyer and seller of weaponry, the United States itself, there is meaningful, strongly enforced regulation that ensures that people who do have access to extremely dangerous weaponry—and the vast majority of it is extremely dangerous—have extensive background checks, are monitored on an ongoing basis. And I would suggest that the weaponry itself and the ammunition should be tracked at all times.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein, I want to turn to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre again. He testified earlier this year at the United Nations opposing the global arms treaty.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: The NRA is the largest and most active firearms rights organization in the world, with four million members who represent 100 million Americans who own firearms. On behalf of those 100 million American gun owners, I am here to announce NRA’s strong opposition to anti-freedom policies that disregard American citizens’ right to self-defense. No foreign influence has jurisdiction over the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us. We will not stand idly by while international organizations, whether state-based or stateless, attempt to undermine the fundamental liberties our men and women in uniform have fought so bravely to preserve and on which our entire American system of government is based.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre speaking in July. That same month, 50 U.S. senators signed a letter opposing the arms trade treaty. Eight Democrats signed the letter: Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia. Andrew Feinstein, your comments on what the NRA chief had to say about the global arms treaty?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: First of all, let me make absolutely clear that the NRA chief, in those words, showed primarily that he actually doesn’t understand the international arms trade treaty. The treaty that will be negotiated again at the United Nations early this year, as Amy mentioned, that unfortunately wasn’t passed in July because of the opposition of the United States, is intended to regulate international transfers of weapons. It would not impinge on the domestic situation in the United States of America, and nobody who I’m aware of who is involved in the negotiations is suggesting that it should. I must say that from my own perspective as an analyst of the global trade in arms, I think it would actually be a positive development if there were requirements for norms and standards domestically as well as internationally. But that is not going to be developed by a body like the United Nations. So Mr. LaPierre, in the first instance, does not understand the intention of the global arms trade treaty. And his organization has been responsible for distributing a whole range of myths about the treaty. His belief is that any regulation of weaponry and arms on a global level, on a domestic level, is wrong. And that’s where his opposition is coming from.
But let me make another point that I think is absolutely crucial about this and to understand where the NRA is coming from and, unfortunately, where the global trade in arms comes from, as well. And that is the linkages between politics and the gun lobby, and particularly, in terms of those linkages, money. One of the reasons that I focus on the global trade in arms in my work is because I saw, both in the context of South Africa, but also at a global level, the way in which money has come to pollute our politics. And the relationship between defense contractors on an international level and political parties and individual politicians are deep and profound. At a domestic level, the relationships between the NRA and specific elected representatives, not only in terms of money contributed, but also in terms of support given, are, again, profound. And unless we are able to break these linkages between money and politics that so pollute the way we are governed around the world, we will not be able to deal with some of the most intractable problems that face us as human beings—
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: —problems of the weaponization of the world, problems of climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein, the power of the NRA at the international level, as well—I mean, you have Wayne LaPierre lobbying against this. You talked about the U.S. being the main obstacle to the arms trade treaty—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —being ratified in July. We had human rights groups in, like Amnesty International, saying—I mean, the U.S. was just the essential—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: —obstacle here. This is not under President Bush, but this is under President Obama, working, in a sense, oddly enough, hand in hand with the NRA on this issue at the United Nations.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: I have not seen anywhere else in the world a gun lobby that has the same level of influence on its own government as the NRA does in the United States. My own assessment of what happened in July with the arms trade treaty is that the NRA, through the words of Mr. LaPierre and others, made clear to the Obama administration that it would make the president’s re-election a lot more difficult if he supported an international arms trade treaty. And I think it’s in that way that the NRA had such direct influence on the U.S. decision to effectively scupper negotiations for what in my opinion wouldn’t have been a strong-enough arms trade treaty, but would have been far better than any form of regulation that we have at the moment. So, yes, I think this is something of a unique situation, where a gun lobby has the extent of influence that it has in the United States of America.
And, of course, partly that is due to the Second Amendment, but what I find so astonishing about the domestic debate in the U.S. is that the Second Amendment is seen in isolation from the rest of the Constitution. It is seen in isolation of the right to life. The way in which Mr. LaPierre speaks about notions of freedom, I believe, are incredibly narrowly focused, to the point of being extremely jaundiced. What of the freedom of those 27 victims of the latest mass shooting tragedy in the United States of America? Because of the freedom of the killer’s mother to hold in her house the absurd number of highly dangerous weapons that she did, not just the freedom but the right to life of those 20 children and seven adults was taken away from them. So the Second Amendment must surely be understood within the context of the overall U.S. Constitution. But the political debate in the country—again, speaking as an observer, as someone who observes it from the outside—the tone of the debate is, again, unique. This desire, this right to bear arms, with so little thought given to the consequence of the hundreds of millions of Americans who are negatively affected by that right—
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: —is something that strikes the rest of the world as extraordinary.
AMY GOODMAN: How interlinked is the NRA, the National Rifle Association, with the weapons manufacturers, financially, politically?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: I don’t, in the book, have specific figures on that, but I would extrapolate from how this trade works around the world that there would be fundamental links and that those links would be at a number of levels. They would include, for instance, dialogue about products. They would include dialogue about marketing. They would include dialogue about strategies. They would also include, I’m pretty sure, money. I would be extremely surprised if American weapons manufacturers were not providing the NRA with a significant portion of its funding.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: And then there is another profound level, and that is again coming back to the idea of the revolving door, where I would imagine there is a pretty continuous flow of people between the gun lobby, between the NRA, and the major defense manufacturers in the country, because these are people whose interests are at one, who move in the same formal and informal circles, social and political circles.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein, before we conclude—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: So I would suggest that the links would be profound.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Feinstein, before we conclude, very quickly, I wanted to ask you what is at stake, then, in this global arms treaty and the negotiations that are forthcoming? One of the things that you mention is that the total number of dollars spent in the global arms trade is now $1.7 trillion, which is over a 50 percent increase in just a decade.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: We have seen—during this period of fiscal and economic crisis around the world, we have seen weapons transfers increase by 24 percent. So when we talk about a global arms trade, I would see this as a starting point, as a starting point in which the world takes the decision that the current status quo in the way that we produce, buy and sell guns, across borders and within borders, although the treaty is not dealing with the domestic internal situations, but to place a line in the sand to say that we have to change the way in which we produce and trade in weaponry, that we have to regulate this as severely, if not more so, than all the other threats to our health, to our well-being and to our ability to live. That is what is at stake in the international arms trade treaty, on which negotiations will restart in the very near future.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein, very quickly, I wanted to ask you about a comment of Stephen Graham, who wrote Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. He spoke last November on Democracy Now!, describing the level of equipment now accessible to police departments in the United States.
STEPHEN GRAHAM: Well, there’s been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That’s been longstanding, fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and elsewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege. Final comment on this, Andrew Feinstein?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: We are seeing the weaponization of the way we live in so many ways. Policing is just one of the most obvious and current examples in that. And I would suggest that the pervasive development of drone technology around the world, that we are seeing being used for all sorts of purposes, is really the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to these issues. We are going to see greater and greater weaponization of drones that we see used in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other places. We are going to see the appearances of those sorts of drones in our own domestic policing and surveillance activities in the United States and in Europe. And there is a huge element to them besides the obvious element of human rights, freedom, to the right to privacy, the right to free expression.
The other important dimension of them that runs throughout the weapons business is the issue of blowback, the reality that so often these very same weapons that we produce for purposes that we think are good come back to haunt us. And the United States domestically, in the case of Sandy Hook and many others, is only the most recent and most tragic example of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein, we want to thank you very much for being with us, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, working on a film version of the book. He is actually a former ANC member of Parliament in South Africa, speaking to us from London. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.