Ara Marcen Naval is Head of Advocacy for Transparency International – Defence & Security. In this blog, she explains her motivations for joining the fight against corruption – and why our work in the defence sector matters more than ever.
In November 2019, I joined Transparency International’s Defence & Security Program after years working for other high-profile organisations on arms control and human rights. Transparency International is best-known for its indices, especially the flagship Corruption Perception Index. But what most intrigued me were the less well known – but equally important – indices which measure the risk of corruption of the defence sector.
In my career, I have witnessed some of the biggest developments in the arms control regime, including the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty. However, despite civil society efforts to curb the arms trade, global defence spending keeps rising – by 15 per cent in the past decade. Major players like US, EU, China and Russia have embarked on major programmes to modernise and upgrade their militaries, increasing military spending over the decade to 2016 by 144 per cent and 106 per cent respectively. And many other states are following suit. In Asia, at least five countries have doubled their defence expenditure in the same period; in the Middle East, defence comprises an average 15 per cent of state spending. The opportunity of trade deals hollows the considerations for development and human rights.
But it is not just the size of defence budgets that matters. Global military expenditure is rising, yet rising most rapidly in exactly those places where standards of governance are weakest. And where checks and balances are weak, vast proportions of public funding are spent in completely opaque ways. Parliamentary committees, judiciaries, and audit offices are growing in authority in many countries from Malaysia, to South Africa, to Brazil. But defence matters all too often remain off-limits.
Despite this, the arms control regime (for instance, in the Arms Trade Treaty, or the EU Common position) does not observe corruption as one of the criteria to refuse the license to transfer weapons. Procurement and arms trade deals take place over time, sometimes there are deals that take 10 years or more, and currently there are no obligations for states to extant licences that can be suspended or revoked on the basis of new information or changed circumstances.
The arms industry is generally held to be among the most vulnerable to corrupt behaviour across all industrial and commercial sectors. Cases of large-scale corruption continue to be reported and recorded, and the problem is remarkably persistent despite repeated efforts to insert policies on anti-bribery and corruption. The excessive influence of the industry in government decisions has potentially dangerous consequences. It risks eroding the government’s ability to make independently informed choices on military needs, which might increasingly have to rely on data and expertise of existing suppliers with own vested interests when designing tenders, determining the merits of products and their suitability to close capability gaps.
The anti-corruption movement has a huge peak to climb. Defence & security sectors are excluded from most of the existing mechanisms to fight corruption as it lays in the national security arena. All states struggle with the need to find a balance between national security concerns and the freedom of information. The risks of failing to control sensitive information related to national security can be extremely serious, and it is understood that a higher level of secrecy is needed in areas of the defence and security sector to protect national security. However, this should not justify non-compliance with international best practices in secrecy classification.
Where there is no expectation that defence institutions are transparent about their activities, a multitude of opportunities for corruption present themselves. Weak legislation, a lack of accountability and poor or inexistent oversight systems provide the perfect environment for individuals to engage in corruption. We need to raise our voices to demand closer oversight: defence can’t continue being the exemption. It needs to be part of the anti-corruption efforts, both for civil society and for governments and institution.
 SIPRI, Military Expenditure Database 2017, https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex.