Thursday, May 08, 2008

There Are No Superheroes to Save Us From the Indiscretions of the Arms Trade

Superhero film highlights arms trade in a new way

This weekend's big box office winner, Iron Man, is far from the first film to take aim at the arms trade over the last couple of years.

Andrew Niccol's Nicholas Cage-powered Lord of War took aim at the international arms black market in 2005.

For the savvy viewer, Iron Man crosses the finish line as a similarly thought-provoking film (although admittedly with a lot more explosions along the way). This time, however, the film's target is the arms black market's necessary handmaiden, the legal international arms trade.

Robert Downey Jr -- a remarkably befitting choice -- plays Tony Stark, a carefree but brilliant man who has parlayed his unparalleled engineering genius into astounding wealth and renown as the world's top weapons manufacturer.

All too often, the only thing more appealing than his work life -- where he labours along side personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) -- are some of the obstacles he has to overcome -- particularly, attack dog reporter Christine Everheart (Leslie Bibb). Even his normally-stuffy military attache, Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) can be loosened up every once in a while.

However, Stark's life changes forever when he travels to Afghanistan to showcase an incredible new weapon he's developed -- think of it as a self-propelled cluster bomb on steroids. While traveling in Afghanistan, he's ambushed by what seem to be terrorists and taken hostage.

His captors turn out to be not terrorists, but the Ten Rings, a band of world domination types -- although some would argue there is little difference -- who expect him to build them a missile just like the one he just test fired.

To help him accomplish this, Stark is provided with a significant cache of his own company's weapons, which have somehow fallen into the hands of the Ten Rings.

But Stark has a problem. Shrapnel lodged in his chest during the ambush is being held at bay only by an electro-magnet installed in his chest by his cell mate. Instead of building a missile, however, Stark builds himself his ticket out of captivity -- the Iron Man armour which transforms Stark from billionare playboy cad into intrepid super hero.

Upon breaking out of captivity, Stark decides to shut down Stark Industries, leave the weapons manufacturing business, and perfect his armour design.

But Stark is eventually spurred into action when Everheart, his part-time nemesis reveals that recent atrocities taking place in a barely-identified place in the world (it could be a Middle Eastern country or an Eastern European country -- the film isn't entirely clear) are being committed with weapons manufactured by his own company.

Stark quickly discovers that Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) has been selling these weapons to groups like the Ten Rings, and probably others like them. Now he intends to wrest control of Stark Industries away from Stark, and presumably continue to profit by selling arms both over and under the table.

Stark notes at one point of the film that the arms trade has "no accountability", and to a large degree this is true.

In particular, some may recall a revelation last year that Canada's federal government hasn't released a report on arms exports for the last four years. The last available annual report showed a jump to $678 million in exports in 2002 from $302 million in 1997.

In the meantime, Canada has become a mass weapons exporter -- the sixth largest in the world.

The emergence of Canada as a legitimate power in the weapons trade and a notable lack of transparency regarding who is selling those weapons, and to whom (in particular weapons weren't tracked if sold to the United States) has implications for Canada's foreign policy.

In particular, Canadian firms were known to be increasing their exports to various Latin American countries in the mid-to-late '90s.

Considering some of the events taking place during that time period -- civil strife in Guatemala and a suspicious coup d'etat in Haiti -- one can't help but wonder if the combination of arms exports to Latin America and a demonstrable interventionist streak in the foreign policy of Canada's biggest ally could have resulted in a chapter of Canadian history few Canadians would be comfortable with.

Another interesting issue at play is a lack of public knowledge of who is investing in Canadian defense firms -- namely, us. Every Canadian who has paid a CPP contribution has invested in the arms trade, as the Canada Pension Plan has invested no less than $2.55 billion in Canadian defense firms.

Certainly, numerous Canadians would find this particular revelation to be unsettling, to say the least.

There are reasons why the arms trade has many secrets it is loath to surrender -- just as Tony Stark discovers in Iron Man.

Just as the arms black market poses distinct challenges in terms of foreign policy, so does the legal arms trade. After all, the weapons sold in the black market have to come from somewhere. And while poorly-tended weapons stocks in former superpowers -- as well as stocks taken overseas and left their by existing superpowers -- have provided black market dealers with abundant stocks, what often offers them the best profit is the most current materiel.

And to pretend that arms firms have no incentive to sell to oppressive or warlike regimes would be nothing less than an exercise in naivete. Black market arms dealers can often be a means to this very end.

It's time for governments the world over to put a shorter leash on weapons firms.

After all, we can't count on real-world arms dealers to be as surprisingly conscientious as the fictional Tony Stark.

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