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The arms trade

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The present discussions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions are just the latest aspect of a continuous stream of international tension over the development of particular military technologies.  There is a generally shared international concern about the proliferation of weapons of various kinds, including chemical, biological and nuclear technology.  But one factor that complicates that concern is the fact that every developed country profits considerably by providing other countries, and particularly less developed countries, with weapons and military equipment of every kind.  The international arms trade is so vibrant and profitable that it may appear to the politicians of many countries that they have as much to lose economically by its reduction as they have to gain in other terms.  That may be less true of nuclear weaponry, where the potential losses are so cataclysmic, but it is certainly true of conventional weaponry.
With this in mind, a few thoughts about the Torah view of the international arms trade.
It is clear halochoh that it is forbidden to sell weapons of any description to anyone who is likely to use them to attack others.  It is irrelevant for this purpose whether the assailants, or their potential victims, are Jewish or non-Jewish.  The halochoh is of universal application in both respects.
The prohibition extends beyond the sale of actual weaponry, and is expressly applied to the sale of articles designed to be used in warfare for the restraint of prisoners or other purposes, to the sale of raw materials which are exclusively suitable for military purposes, to the provision of services in repairing or improving weapons and to the provision of expert advice in relation to munitions.
There are only three classes of exception or qualification to this very general prohibition.
First, there is a generally (although not universally) accepted exception in the case of articles which are exclusively of defensive use; and the exception may include articles which are primarily defensive but which could be used, perhaps in a last resort, also for aggression.
Secondly, the prohibition on the sale of materials applies only to those relatively few instances of materials that are exclusively applied to military purposes: so, for example, the Gemoro concludes that to sell ordinary metals to people who might use them for military purposes is permissible, but to sell a kind of Indian iron that is in practice acquired exclusively for military purposes is forbidden.  As to the sale of multi-purpose raw materials in circumstances that suggest a military purpose behind the purchase, this will be a question of fact and degree.
Thirdly, it is expressly permitted to supply weaponry to an actual or potential protector.
As is so often the case, one can more easily isolate these relatively simple halachic principles than one can apply them with certainty to any particular case.  For the present, a few thoughts at a general level-
(1)    It can be difficult to determine whether something is primarily aggressive or primarily defensive.

(2)    For example, the United Kingdom possesses what it describes as a nuclear deterrent.  The deterrent is composed of munitions which are designed entirely for aggressive purposes.  But the argument for describing them as a defence is that there is no actual defence against a nuclear attack, except for the deterrent effect produced by a potential aggressor’s knowledge that a potential victim has the capability of a nuclear response.

(3)    To take another example, anti-aircraft weaponry might legitimately be sold to a sovereign state on the grounds that in normal military circumstances it is exclusively a defence.  But to sell the same item to mercenaries who do not have a legitimate defence-role in respect of any particular territory would enable them, and would seem likely to be intended to enable them, to commit an act of aggression in someone else’s territory.

(4)    The sale of materials that are particularly suitable for nuclear research or development would not come under the prohibition where there is a reasonable likelihood of their being intended for use in relation to nuclear power for civil purposes.

(5)    The role of actual or potential protector is necessarily a vague one.  The Rabbis suggest that the existence of a formal covenant of protection is significant in this respect.  Today, NATO would be an example of a group of nations who have entered into a formal defensive alliance and who thereby become entitled to supply each other with munitions and other military equipment, provided that it is of a kind and in a quantity which is consistent with use for the common defence.  And the United Nations appears to have the status of a universal protector, so that the provision of military services or equipment to forces operating under the authority of the United Nations would be likely to satisfy the criteria of protection.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 22, 2006 at 11:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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