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Blood pensions: how your retirement savings fund war

Blood pensions: how your retirement savings fund war

Last year’s tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, have again made the availability of guns a hot issue in the United States.

Yet while gun control is debated in the US domestically, few are aware of how arms exports in industrialized countries fuel conflict internationally.

Even more concerning is how planning for your retirement fuels conflict.

The arms industry and developed and developing countries.

First, the obvious. There is big money in the arms industry. Annual worldwide military spending is more than $1.5 trillion, and the top 100 arms manufacturers made USD $419 billion in 2010.

Developing countries currently account for 75% of all global arms-transfers agreements. It would be nice to think that these arms are going to stable democracies, but that would be naive.

Often unconcerned by pesky things like ethics, the arms industry ensures weapons go to whomever is willing to pay for them. So weapons go to authoritarian regimes, or are resold through illegal channels.

There are the notorious examples, such as Iran and China continuing to supply Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir’s odious regime with arms while the genocide raged on, and certainly these governments along with others such as Russia should be held to account for their arms transfers. Yet countries like the US and Canada are also culpable.

Take for example the civil war in Sri Lanka. During the three years prior to the war’s end, Britain, other European countries, and the United States approved the export of arms and military equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to the government of Sri Lanka. The government (as well as the Tamil Tigers, the other side in the conflict) is now accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity near the end of the war.

While my home country of Canada prides itself on its history of peacekeeping (despite the fact it currently has fewer peacekeepers deployed than Yemen and Slovakia – but I digress) and its general niceness, it is in fact among the top ten arms exporters in the world. Over the past number of years it has had one of the lowest international Arms Transparency ratings among industrialized countries.

Further, in 2011 the Saudi Arabia National Guard used armoured vehicles bought from Canada to support the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of civil dissent in Bahrain.

So at the same time that many Canadians were cheering the efforts of activists to bring democracy to their countries during the Arab Spring, Canadian armoured vehicles were being used to violently suppress these activists.

The sales of such vehicles continue, and NGOs have raised concerns about how these vehicles will be used in Colombia.

“We are consumers of war.”

It’s not just governments. People like you and me are also implicated in the arms trade.

How? By engaging in what seems an innocuous and even laudable thing to do: saving for retirement. All too often pension plans invest in companies selling weapons that fuel atrocities around the globe.

Indeed, “killer pensions” is what one think tank in Ottawa calls pensions from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), due to the plan’s investment in war industries. All Canadian workers pay into the CPP, which holds more than $200 million in 24 of the world’s top arms-producing companies.

It is the same in the United States. As one example, the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System has almost $2 billion invested in arms producers.

These and other public-sector worker funds in Canada and in the United States profit from the sale of military munitions including small arms, land mines, and cluster bombs. We as pension owners profit from the sale of military munitions without our knowledge or consent.

There is a dark irony in this for Canada, as it led the crusade for the Mine Ban Treaty and is a signatory to the international convention banning cluster munitions, yet has failed to follow the example of New Zealand, Norway and others that have divested completely from land mine and cluster bomb producers.

Commenting on these funds in her book “Damned Nations,” Samantha Nutt puts it succinctly thus: “we are consumers of war.”

Ensuring you don’t profit from conflict

They say money talks, and what our pensions say about our values isn’t flattering. Yet there are things you can do to ensure our governments and our pensions do not fund and profit from conflict around the globe.

You can begin at an individual level. Divest your personal investments from funds that invest in arms manufacturers, and ask questions of your fund managers – many funds with “ethical” investment policies nevertheless invest in military munitions.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute complies a list of the top 100 arms manufacturers, which you can consult to see which corporations your investments should avoid.

Further, you can demand your government do the same. If the governments of Norway, California and other places can see returns while investing ethically, so can yours.

Additionally, this month the United Nations conducts its final negotiating conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the global arms trade. Control Arms, a coalition of NGOs, has information about this treaty available on its website and will be engaging supporters in its Global Week of Action March 11-17, before the negotiations on ATT begin at the end of the month.

We in industrialized countries are fortunate to live largely freely and safely, without fear of violence. It is not just that our comfortable retirements in these safe societies be funded by arms sales and conflict in other countries, and it is not necessary.

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Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

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