With the world’s largest economy, the US is often the envy of other nations. Brazil is no exception in this case, and who could blame Brazilians for their envy about smartphones and tablets that are twice as expensive in Brazil as the US.
However, not everything in the US is worth envying. For example, the US has the world’s largest stockpile of weapons. Unfortunately, it would seem that Brazil is preparing to copy this dangerous aspect of American life.
One reason Brazilian weapons production and exports are expanding is because Brazil’s Congress passed a law to promote innovation and competition in the defense sector. The legislation also granted designated defense companies significant tax exemptions. Brazil is now the fourth largest supplier of small arms and ammunition in the world and second in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
Until now, Brazil proudly maintained an international reputation as a provider of peace building and diplomacy, sending its military to Haiti following the natural disasters, for instance. However, Latin America’s largest weapons manufacturer, Forjas Taurus, is located in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and their business is booming. Some critics fear that the continuing sales of firearms from Forjas Taurus to other countries may place Brazil in the middle of international conflicts.
An investigation last month into Forjas Taurus revealed that the company supplied weapons to a notorious arms dealer in Yemen. Brazilian prosecutors allege that Fares Mohammed Hassan Mana’a, a widely known arms smuggler and former governor in Yemen, diverted a consignment of 8,000 handguns from Djibouti across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to Yemen. Mr. Mana’a is believed to have been supporting Houthi rebels in their fight against a Saudi- and United States-backed government. The civil war in Yemen has already killed an estimated 10,000 people since early 2015 and displaced more than three million.
Two Taurus executives were accused of negotiating a second sale of 11,000 weapons in 2015 when Brazil’s Federal Police moved in. This is not the first time Brazilian weapons have turned up in the Yemeni conflict. Late last year, researchers discovered unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs in Yemen that are believed to have been purchased from Avibras Indústria Aeroespacial, a São José dos Campos-based company that manufactures cluster rockets and the Astros multiple-launch rocket system. More than 100 countries have banned the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of these weapons because of their potential to cause indiscriminate damage to civilian populations and infrastructure. Brazil has not yet banned the weapons.
Brazilian weapons companies routinely authorize sales to countries with poor human rights records. The country has signed major deals not only with Saudi Arabia, but also with Egypt, Libya, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe and dozens of countries across the Middle East and Africa since the 1980s. Brazilian companies have also ramped up sales of “nonlethal” arms such as tear gas, pepper spray, and concussion and smoke grenades. Some of these have surfaced in Bahrain, Turkey, and Egypt.
Making matters worse, Brazil has yet to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, or A.T.T. This important agreement prohibits countries from transferring conventional weapons, including handguns such as the ones Forjas Taurus manufactures, to foreign countries and brokers who pose a high risk of committing crimes against humanity. In late August, the A.T.T. cleared an important committee vote in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, but full ratification is now being held up in the Committee on Public Security, which is dominated by a conservative congressional bloc known as the bancada da bala or bullet caucus.
To complicate matters further, BNDES, the government development bank that is currently under investigation for its lending practices, has Forjas Taurus as a client. Forjas Taurus received U$16.7 million in low-interest loans between 2008 and 2015 from BNDES. The Brazilian Cartridge Company, one of the world’s largest producers of ammunition (and majority shareholder of Taurus), received U$2.9 million in loans. Brazil’s defense sector, excepting aeronautics, received U$70.5 million in BNDES loans during the same period.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how many weapons Brazil sells around the world. The country’s arms export policies are non-transparent, lacking adequate oversight and mechanisms to ensure that the people who use the weapons comply with international law. Brazil is as bad as China and Ukraine when it comes to reporting its arms transfers to international authorities. Though Brazilian diplomats disagree, there are comparatively few checks and balances once weapons leave the country. Perhaps this is not surprising given that Brazil’s official arms policy is still largely based on decrees from the military dictatorship.
The country’s failure to ratify the A.T.T. is undermining its global stature as a peace power, cultivated through nearly 70 years of participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Suspicious arms deals are in contradiction with Brazil’s hard-earned reputation for preventing conflict and developing peacekeepers around the world.
[Research for this article comes from the Igarapé Institute, an independent think tank in Rio de Janeiro.]