The world desperately needs a tough and well-enforced arms trade treaty to stop the present flow of weaponry to serious abusers of human rights.
By Brian Wood, June 2006, Le Monde Diplomatique, France,
The world’s governments meet in New York at the end of this month to discuss how to enhance the United Nations programme of action on small arms and light weapons. So far the programme has not considered respect for human rights, although the UN charter refers to this duty; the programme also leaves crucial aspects of arms control, such as rules for international transfers, almost untouched. The conference will be confrontational for those who want better global security.
Approaches to the global small arms problem first emerged after terrible conflicts in Africa and the Balkans in the 1990s, including genocide in Rwanda. A growing global campaign demands tough control and will not disappear (especially now that it has some government support). But an alliance of the United States, China, Russia and some non-aligned states threatens to block any significant conference moves to tighten controls.
The trade in small arms and light weapons is only a fraction of that in conventional military equipment, but is just as lethal. Secrecy and lack of accountability mean that accurate, up-to-date statistics on the global arms trade are hard to obtain and must be treated with caution. However, one set of data, based on estimates of military articles and services traded by value, claims that 35 countries are responsible for 90% of the world’s arms exports, and that, during the period 1997-2005, developing countries’ share of such imports increased to 68.5%.
Seven of the world’s top arms exporters – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan (whose exports are relatively small), Russia, the US and Britain – belong to the Group of Eight (G8). Amnesty International (AI), Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), acting together in the Control Arms Campaign, published a report in June 2005 revealing how these countries supplied equipment, weapons and munitions to destinations where they contribute to violations of human rights. Loopholes and weaknesses in arms export controls across G8 countries undermine their commitments to poverty reduction, stability and human rights; irresponsible exports by some G8 countries went to such poor and conflict-ridden countries as Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia and the Philippines. Arms transfers by these major powers are supplemented by exports from China and medium-sized, arms-producing states such as Brazil, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, North Korea, South Africa, all competing for markets.
If an importer cannot get what it wants directly, it will shop around and may buy indirectly. In June 2005 AI called on the governments of India, Britain, the US, Belgium, Germany, South Africa and France to suspend all military and security-related transfers to Nepal until its government halted human rights violations and brought those responsible to justice. When India, the US and Britain temporarily suspended supplies in 2004, the Nepalese government secured arms from China, covert supplies from the US government and offers of more from Pakistan. Among the purchases from India had been helicopters assembled from French parts.
The role of brokers
A key aspect of global competition to sell arms is the role of brokers, who often work in networks with transport and financial agents. Only about 35 states have laws regulating them, so they collaborate with government officials to supply cheap weaponry to rulers and warlords. In July 2005 an AI report showed that large quantities of weapons and ammunition from the Balkans and Eastern Europe were flowing into Africa’s Great Lakes region, although it was known that they led to human rights violations. The shipments continued to the Democratic Republic of Congo despite a peace process initiated in 2002 and an UN arms embargo. AI revealed the role played by arms dealers, brokers and transporters from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Britain and the US; it traced the supply to the governments of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda and its distribution to armed groups and militia in eastern DRC that were involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The proliferation of arms, especially small arms, has had a lasting impact on human rights. In the Mano River states of west Africa, AI has repeatedly appealed for measures to halt arms flows that result in human rights abuses in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In October 2005 AI made public its concerns about reports of small arms proliferation, re-circulation and new transfers to both sides in Ivory Coast, despite the embargo imposed by the UN in November 2004. Easy access to small arms undermined the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes, and contributed to violations of the ceasefire, inter-ethnic conflict and the use of child soldiers.
Women pay a disproportionate price for the unregulated trade in small arms, in their homes and communities, during and after conflict. AI, Oxfam and IANSA have appealed to governments to address inadequate firearms regulations, poor law enforcement and widespread discrimination which worsens women’s vulnerability to domestic violence and rape. In some countries, there is a murder of a woman every few hours by her partner or former partner, and the presence of a gun in the household increases the risk. Women subject to armed violence at home often get no help from the police. An increase in armed gangs glamorises gun culture and macho behaviour, increases sexual assaults on women and restricts their daily lives because of intimidation. The threat is greater during and after armed conflict: most displaced people or refugees are women and children.
In Haiti, illegal armed groups and former military use small arms to kidnap, sexually abuse and kill with impunity. Without disarmament and justice for the victims, Haiti will sink further into crisis. In parts of the country where state authority is frail, armed groups and individuals illegally control territory and population and commit crimes without being challenged by police and other authorities.
For millions of Brazilians who live in favelas, armed violence is part of daily life. They are caught between drug gangs, police and vigilante death squads in parts of cities where the rule of law does not apply. A policy of military-style incursions into favelas has failed to curb violence, and has endangered the lives of some of the most vulnerable. A referendum on a total ban on the sale of guns was defeated in October 2005; many analysts have attributed that to people’s despair about public security and lack of faith in the ability of the police to protect them. Nevertheless some policing projects have been successful: Diadema, a 350,000-strong community in the industrial belt of São Paulo, is an example of a well-planned, integrated social project that has reduced levels of violence.
‘Lack of accountability’
In many countries, the inadequate training or lack of accountability of armed police and other law enforcers has led to human rights violations. For example, Uzbek security forces indiscriminately shot into crowds in a central square in Andizhan on 12-13 May 2005, killing hundreds of civilians, and then drove armoured personnel carriers over bodies. Such indiscriminate use of force contravenes international human rights standards, including the UN code of conduct for law enforcement officials and the UN basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials.
AI, Oxfam International and IANSA have expanded their Control Arms Campaign to over 100 countries. It was launched in October 2003 to help reduce arms proliferation and misuse by c
onvincing governments to introduce tough control and an enforceable arms trade treaty based on international law. Such universal standards would save lives, prevent suffering and protect livelihoods. The campaign proposed to address the lack of a global system to track small arms and ammunition, and to hold arms traders accountable for weapons reaching human rights abusers and war criminals. A UN instrument on marking and tracing was finally agreed in 2005, but it excluded ammunition and was not legally binding.
The number of states calling for such a treaty increased in 2005 and Kenya, Finland, Costa Rica, Norway and Britain led international support. During a UN conference last July to review progress in curbing the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons under a 2001 agreement, 13 governments announced support for the Control Arms Campaign. Last October the EU council of foreign ministers called for global support for such a treaty. By the end of 2005 about 50 governments had declared their support and the momentum was increasing; other governments, including some east African states and the Mercosur grouping of Latin American states, made statements in favour of stronger export controls based on global minimum standards.
There is support for the British position that UN negotiations on a treaty covering all conventional arms should begin in late 2006 after July’s small arms conference.
Last October it was also agreed that a UN Group of government experts should be set up to consider action to prevent the illicit brokering of small arms and light weapons. Some powerful and influential states, including China, Egypt and the US, are opposed to legally binding instruments to control small arms and light weapons; while states in the Middle East and Asia have as yet to be convinced to support a strong treaty. Moreover, many governments in Africa and elsewhere do not have the capacity to implement control measures and may need expanded international assistance to deal with the problem.