Human rights and democratic arms transfers: Rhetoric versus reality with different types of major weapon systems

Richard A.I. Johnson, Spencer L. Willardson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Since the height of the Cold War, major democratic arms suppliers have claimed that they take into consideration the human rights records of existing and potential purchasing states. After the ColdWar, supplier policies suggested an increased focus on matters of human rights. But do their records match their rhetoric and their formal policies? We examine the arms transfer patterns of the four major democratic suppliers between 1976 and 2009. We argue that, if practice matches policy, then democratic suppliers should not transfer weapons to states violating human rights. However, because the global interests of these suppliers shift over time, we expect some transfers of major weapon systems to states that violate human rights, but not of the types most implicated in human rights abuses. Thus, we build on the existing arms transfer literature by disaggregating exports based on weapons type. The ordered logits we run for each major democratic supplier from 1976 to 2009 show that the major democratic suppliers generally do not account for human rights violations in the importing state, with the one exception being the United States transfer of land weapon systems. This research is important not only to arms and human rights research, but to foreign policy scholars in general. The patterns of supply and the continued preference of states to provide major conventional weapons to states with poor human rights records reveal important policy priorities for these democratic states.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)453-464
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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