Sowing Weapons of War

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English

Sowing Weapons of War: A Pastoral Reflection on the Arms Trade and Landmines

National Conference of Catholic Bishops
June 16, 1995

The arms trade is a scandal.1 That weapons of war are bought and sold almost as if they were simply another commodity like appliances or industrial machinery is a serious moral disorder in today's world.2 The predominant role of our own country in sustaining and even promoting the arms trade, sometimes for economic reasons, is a moral challenge for our nation. Jobs at home cannot justify exporting the means of war abroad.  

In too many cases, the global arms trade has brought not security, but aggression, repression and long-term instability. Starving Somali children, destroyed Angolan villages, Cambodian lands rendered uninhabitable by landmines, and seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan are the fruits of this deadly trade. "By their fruits you will know them" (Mt 7:20).  

These attacks on life led the Holy Father, in his recent encyclical, to condemn "the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood."3 These realities moved the African bishops last year to appeal to those in the North to "stop arms sales to groups locked in conflict in Africa."4 This suffering impelled Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo to tell Americans that more weapons will lead to "more destruction, to complete cataclysm" in Bosnia-Herzegovina.5 Our own relief workers and missionaries, whose lives are often at risk, can recite an endless litany of horrors brought about by this deadly trade.   

In response to these appeals and the recent Vatican reflection on the arms trade,6 we renew our call for our nation and the international community to undertake more serious efforts to control and radically reduce the trade in arms. The arms trade is an integral part of "the culture of violence" we deplored a year ago.7 Just as we seek to stop the proliferation of arms in our streets, we, too, must stop the proliferation of arms around the world. Curbing the arms trade is now an essential part of the peacemaking vocation we outlined in "The Challenge of Peace" more than a decade ago.  

The Free Market in Arms 

The decline in arms transfers, as well as global military spending, since the end of the Cold War is a welcome development. Weapons exports remain excessive, however, and the transfer of increasingly sophisticated weapons technology has contributed to a proliferation of arms industries around the world, creating, in turn, new suppliers of still more weapons. Regrettably, as global arms transfers have declined, the United States' dominance of this lethal trade has increased dramatically. With aggressive government support, the United States now supplies half the world's arms exports and controls more than 70 percent of the Third World market.8 The desire to protect jobs and maintain the defense industry has led to a paradoxical situation in which modest reductions in military spending at home seem to encourage the export of weapons abroad.  

Too often, arms are sent around the world with insufficient attention to how they threaten peace, development and human rights. The three dozen regional conflicts around the world are fueled, widened and prolonged by easy access to weapons, with civilians most often the victims. The glut of arms inhibits relief and development work, and vastly complicates the international community's peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts. The developing countries could save an estimated 10 million lives if they diverted half their military expenditures to health care.9 Yet the United States and other developed countries reap healthy profits from sending three-quarters of their arms exports to these countries, thereby contributing to the squandering of scarce resources, often by irresponsible and unrepresentative governments. At a time when our country is increasingly reluctant to share its economic resources in support of sustainable economic development, we remain all too ready to share our weapons in support of military development. Less military assistance, reduced arms sales and more development assistance respond to the most pressing human needs of poorer countries.  

Moral Responsibility and the Arms Trade 

Pope John Paul II has said, "The arms-producing countries should consider their moral responsibility, especially concerning their trade with developing countries."10 The threats to peace, human rights and development posed by the arms trade demonstrate that no arms transfer is morally neutral. Arms exports may sometimes be legitimate, but they must meet moral principles, which include the following:11 

  1. The duty to avoid war and promote peace. The United States, like other nations, can reduce the demand for weapons by doing everything possible to avoid war, rooting out the causes of violence, and affirmatively promoting international justice and peace. It is in light of a determined no to war and yes to peace that the morality of U.S. arms transfers must be weighed.
  2. The right of legitimate defense. U.S. arms transfers may be justified only by the need to support another nation's right and duty of legitimate defense. Arms transfers subvert the principle of public defense when they expose people to attacks by their own government, the destructiveness of protracted conflict, or intimidation by armed groups that governments are unable or unwilling to control. In some cases, as Pope John Paul has pointed out, defense of the innocent requires that when "populations are succumbing to the attacks of an unjust aggressor, states [have a] .... duty to disarm this aggressor, if all other means have proved ineffective."12
  3. The principle of sufficiency. This principle permits the United States to transfer only those arms necessary for legitimate defense. The excessive accumulation of arms or their indiscriminate transfer is unacceptable. Arms sales are not justified by the fact that others will supply weapons if we do not. 
  4. The inadequacy of economic justifications for arms transfers. Economic considerations, such as protecting jobs and profits or promoting economic competitiveness, of themselves, do not justify arms transfers.  

Policies for Curbing the Arms Trade 

While the stated objectives of U.S. policy often conform to these criteria, our government has often not been diligent in strictly applying its own standards for restraining arms sales, nor has it committed itself to reducing its growing dominance of the world's arms market. The United States needs to put its energies into building peace, not supplying arms. While other nations are also involved in this deadly commerce, the United States should become a leader in multilateral and independent approaches to reduce the arms trade. The following are some specific initiatives that would help redirect U.S. arms trade policies: 

  1. Strict controls on U.S. arms transfers. Together with other countries, the United States should strictly enforce existing controls, strengthen them where necessary, and seek to reduce substantially its weapons transfers. Continued high levels of U.S. military aid, government subsidies, and other efforts to promote arms sales abroad should be ended. Proposals, such as the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, that would bring greater openness and accountability to arms transfer decisions deserve support. 
  2. Corporate responsibility. Government controls do not absolve those involved in the arms industry of moral responsibility for their decisions to sell arms. They have a moral obligation not only to ensure strict compliance with export controls, but also to avoid sales that will probably be used for illegitimate purposes or that will threaten stability and peace. 
  3. Nonmilitary ways to protect jobs. The sometimes dramatic effects of defense cuts on local economies should be dealt with through economic development and conversion programs, efforts to strengthen the nonmilitary economy, and programs to assist the unemployed.
  4. International controls. Since no single country is responsible for the proliferation of arms and no one country alone can stop it, strict national regulations of arms transfers must be combined with legally binding international norms for all arms transfers, with strict verification measures. The U.N. Arms Register, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other multilateral efforts to control the proliferation of weapons deserve widespread support.
  5. Improved cooperative security. International controls will only be effective and the demand for weapons will only be reduced if there is a strengthening of international mechanisms of cooperative security, including conventional and nuclear arms control agreements. It is particularly appropriate, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, that the United States does its share and encourages other nations to do their share in providing the financial, political and other support necessary for the United Nations to fulfill its mandate to reduce and resolve conflicts in the world.

Banning Landmines: An Urgent Task 

Finally, we would like to add our voice to the appeals of Pope John Paul II and the growing movement to control and eventually ban anti-personnel landmines. The Holy Father has issued "a vigorous appeal for the definitive cessation of the manufacture and use of those arms called 'anti-personnel mines.'... In fact, they continue to kill and to cause irreparable damage well after the end of hostilities, giving rise to severe mutilations in adults and above all, in children."13 Some 100 million of these hidden killers are strewn around the world, killing an estimated 500 people per week, most of whom are civilians. In Cambodia, one of every 236 people is an amputee because of mine blasts.14 While landmines can be used responsibly for legitimate defense, they are often indiscriminate in use, especially in the intrastate conflicts which are so prevalent today. Moreover, landmines are indiscriminate in time because, as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has pointed out, they cause "unacceptable damage to civilian populations long after the cessation of hostilities."15 From Cambodia to Angola, large areas have been rendered uninhabitable, preventing refugees from returning to their homes, inhibiting postwar reconstruction, and producing an ongoing threat to innocent life.  

The United States should lead an international effort to reduce and ultimately ban the use of anti-personnel landmines, just as was done with chemical and biological weapons. The current moratorium on U.S. exports of landmines is commendable; it should be made permanent and should be extended globally. The United States should also take steps, such as those called for in legislation now before Congress, to further restrict its own use of landmines, while it pursues with urgency and persistence international agreements to restrict use globally. The decision to ratify the Conventional Weapons Convention and to seek to strengthen it during its review this year is welcome. Finally, our government should continue to take a leadership role in developing an international effort on the costly and time-consuming process of demining, so important to the protection of innocent life and reconstruction in so many war-torn countries. 


Landmines are symptomatic of a wider problem noted by Pope John Paul in his 1987 encyclical, "On Social Concern," that "arms of whatever origin circulate with almost total freedom all over the world."16 That our own country should be the leader in this deadly market in arms is a source of shame, not pride. As a nation, we should seek to market our ideals, not our weapons. We must "seek peace and pursue it" (Ps 34:15). In the name of peace, development and human rights, we need an ethic of responsibility and a policy of effective restraint to control the trade in arms.   

We urge Catholics involved in decisions to transfer arms to reflect on the moral implications of their decisions. Acting on the biblical injunction to "beat swords into plowshares," we call on our dioceses and parishes to encourage Catholics to press for an abolition of landmines and a reversal of current arms trade policies. As Christians, we believe we are called to build an authentic peace that is based on respect for human dignity and a commitment to the common good, not on the balance of weapons. Spreading weapons of war around the world undermines our efforts to build this authentic peace. 

  1. Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (1995): no. 10. 
  2. Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern, no. 24. 
  3. The Gospel of Life, no. 10. 
  4. "Final Message of the Special Synod for Africa," May 6, 1994, in Origins 24:1 (May 19, 1994): p. 8. 
  5. Cardinal Vinko Puljic, address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 30, 1995, in Catholic News Service, April 3, 1995, p. 7. 
  6. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, "The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection," in Origins 24: 8 (July 7, 1994). 
  7. NCCB, "Confronting a Culture of Violence" (Washington: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Service, 1994). 
  8. Based on 1993 figures. See U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 1993-1994 (1995); Richard F. Grimmett, "Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World, 1986-1993" (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 1994). 
  9. R.L. Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1993 (Washington: World Priorities, 1993): p. 5. 
  10. Pope John Paul II, address to Pax Christi International, May 29, 1995, Vatican City. 11.    
  11. These criteria are based on two documents: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (Washington: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1994): p 14; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, "The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection," in Origins 24:8 (July 7, 1994): p. 141 ff. 
  12. Pope John Paul II, address to diplomatic corps, Jan. 16, 1993, in Origins 22:34 (Feb. 4, 1993), p. 587. 
  13. Pope John Paul II, address to Pax Christi International, May 29, 1995, Vatican City. 
  14. U.S. State Department, Hidden Killers: The Global Landmine Crisis (1994): p. v, 18.  
  15. "The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection," p. 149.  
  16. On Social Concern, no. 24.