Africa: "Let the World Know That Africa Will Not Agree to a Weak Treaty"

Weapons of war.
26 March 2013

With African countries suffering the most from the arms trade's loose regulation, many African leaders are determined that talks in New York lead to a robust arms trade treaty.

Representatives of governments around the world are currently meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York for a second round of negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a conference that owes much to the organisational efforts of African states, civil society and faith-based organisations and global advocacy campaigns such as Control Arms.

"Let the world know that Africa will not agree to a weak treaty," the Ghana delegation said last month at a meeting of African states on the ATT in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Let them carry on trading their weapons, and our bodies on their TV screens can be on their conscience."

If the diplomats in New York can come to an agreement, the ATT will control the global traffic in conventional weapons, currently so poorly regulated that the international markets in bananas, tomatoes and bubble gum are more restrictive than the trade in AK-47 assault rifles.

After a week of hard negotiations, the chair of the Final Conference, Peter Woolcott, released his latest draft of the treaty text on 22 March with disappointingly few concessions to the Africa Group positions, leaving controls on ammunition relatively weak.

But the progressive states and Control Arms hope that a final push over the next few days will result in a stronger text by the time the conference ends on Thursday.

Closing the loopholes

The "Africa Group" - almost all the sub-Saharan states - have jointly called for a strong treaty with clear provisions blocking transfers of arms and ammunition to groups that use weapons to abuse human rights and humanitarian law, undermine development efforts or contribute to corruption.

They face considerable opposition from key arms-exporting states that want to limit the types of weapons included and criteria for denying arms transfers.

"The Liberian experience and other experiences in Africa and other parts of the world show that without such a treaty, armed violence and wars will continue to be fuelled by irresponsible arms transfers", President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia told ATT conference delegates last July.

The Africa Group is among 108 states - mostly made up of 'middle powers' such as Mexico, the Netherlands and Norway and 'small powers' such as Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Jamaica - that on the opening day of the Final Diplomatic Conference (18-28 March) called for a treaty with "the highest possible common international standards for the international transfer of conventional arms".

These 'progressive states', including the Africa Group, are hoping to close a series of loopholes that would, if left unchanged, narrow the scope of weapons covered, leave ammunition loosely regulated and allow states to continue trading with human rights-violating states if they had standing bilateral "Defence Cooperation Agreements".

Keep your friends close

At what was intended to be the culminating Diplomatic Conference in July 2012, negotiations fell apart on the last day, scuttled by the US, Russia and China, along with a small number of other sceptical states.

But while the US and China issued tentatively supportive statements in the run up to the Final Conference, there remain a disingenuously-named group of potential spoilers calling themselves the "Friends of the ATT", which includes the North African states Algeria and Egypt, along with Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

There is also some dissension in the Africa Group. Sudan has sometimes diverged from the common Africa position, such as on issues of human rights.

And in July, the delegation of Zimbabwe stated that it "aligns itself with the Africa Group", but said they "would also like to make it clear" that it did not want a treaty that would be used as "foreign policy instruments of powerful states" or that failed to "respect" Zimbabwe's "state sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence".

However, the Africa Group continues to play an important role in the negotiations.

Last week, Ghana, on behalf of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led a group of 69 states (33 from Africa) in a formal statement saying, "Comprehensive control of the international transfer of ammunition and munitions is fundamental to the goals and objectives of the Arms Trade Treaty".

The human cost of the arms trade

As much as 95% of the weapons and ammunition used in armed violence in Africa come from outside the continent, according to research by Oxfam International.

Indeed, the majority of the world's conventional weapons are exported by US (30% of exports by value between 2007 and 2012) and Russia (26%), with Germany (7%), France (6%), China (5%) and the UK (4%) claiming important market share, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Between 2007 and 2012, these top six exporters sold almost $105 billion worth of arms.

By contrast, the African continent disproportionately bears the human costs of this market, having suffered the majority of deaths from armed violence since 1990.

Additionally, a 2007 investigation by Oxfam and SaferWorld found that the cost of armed conflict in Africa - in military expenditures, health costs, reconstruction, lost tax revenue and depressed productivity - is approximately $18 billion a year, on average reducing a state's economic output by 15%.

"Manufacturing countries are talking about profits, we are thinking about humanitarian consequences and what guns are doing to us in Africa, and to get a convergence of these interests is always a challenge", said Jones Apperlh, executive director of the Ghana National Commission on Small Arms at an ECOWAS preparatory meeting on the ATT last month.

Many African states have also called attention to the gendered impact of violence, both in in the home and in the deployment of sexual violence by armed groups.

In July, Ambassador Osman Keh Kamara, Deputy UN Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone, called for constraints on arms transfers where there is "a substantial risk" of weapons being used "to perpetuate a pattern of gender-based armed violence".

"Men and women are affected differently by arms", explained Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, Executive Director of the Eastern African Sub Regional Support Initiative for Advancement of Women (EASSI), "You don't need a hundred guns to abuse women's rights. One man with a gun can rape a whole village".

The Ant Trade

One must be careful not to caricature the arms trade in Africa as a simple, linear movement of expensive weapons from the industrialised great powers to the Global South, in exchange for African wealth. In general, it is not the most costly weapons systems that do the most damage in Africa; rather it's the approximately 100 million small arms and light weapons (SALW) on the continent, particularly the ubiquitous Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47)-type assault rifle, that cause the most casualties.

Arms trafficking in Africa is also more complex than during the Cold War (when it was dominated by large state-to-state transfers), with single transfers being diffused through numerous diversions and brokers to many different end users. Since SALW and its ammunition is so cheap and transportable, it then re-circulates in what has been called the "Ant Trade" - small quantities distributed, often illicitly, by thousands of locally-based private traders.

As a result, while the industrialised powers have tried to narrow the scope of the ATT to large-scale weapons systems like tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and military ships, the Africa Group has pushed hard to make sure the final text will also apply to SALW and ammunition, an area Julius T. Rotich, Deputy Secretary of the East African Community, has called "the most potent threat to stability, security and development" in the East African Community.

"In Africa, small arms and light weapons are the real weapons of mass destruction as these arms have the most devastating effects on Africa," said Ambassador Osman Keh Kamara, Deputy UN Permanent Representative of the Sierra Leone for Legal Affairs in July. "Our eleven-year war was fought with these small weapons and not guided missiles or nuclear war heads or war tanks."

Machine gun preachers

A broad range of civil society, grassroots and faith-based institutions have being working on humanitarian-, development- and community-organising programmes at mitigating the impact of armed violence, including peacebuilding and conflict transformation; survivor assistance; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR); and risk education. Many of these organisations have played a key role in the Control Arms coalition's advocacy campaign.

In addition to religious leaders, inter-faith and ecumenical institutions, such as All Africa Conference of Churches, World Council of Churches, and African Council of Religious Leaders, have also played a particularly important role.

"Churches have a ready and direct audience locally and internationally, which has been used as a vehicle to quickly and effectively mobilise, strategise and push the agenda forwards", Robert Mtonga, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and active participant in numerous humanitarian and disarmament campaigns, told Think Africa Press.

Civil society and interfaith mobilisation also paved the way for the 2001 UN Programme of Action on SALW, the 2004 Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of SALW in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa, and the 2006 ECOWAS Convention on SALW, their Ammunition, and other Related Materials. These agreements established better weapons stockpile management, improved import and export controls, spurred funding for survivor assistance and established important precedents for the current ATT negotiations.

In pushing for mitigation of the impact of armed violence and the arms trade, African civil society and faith groups have drawn on the inspiration, experience and connections gained in the campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions, in which they played a crucial role.

They hope to repeat their success in developing high international standards on conventional weapons more broadly.

"As humanitarians and peacemakers, we cannot accept the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are gunned down each year, with millions left maimed and traumatised", wrote President Sirleaf, in a 14 March letter calling for "a strong Arms Trade Treaty" co-authored with other 18 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Desmond Tutu of South Africa, as well as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its former coordinator Jody Williams.

"The treaty provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to agree to tough controls on the arms trade that would significantly help reduce armed violence in Africa and across the world, an opportunity that is truly priceless", said President Sirleaf. "I call on the governments of Africa and the world to be bold in our work towards the ATT."

Matthew Bolton is assistant professor of political science at Pace University in New York and is an advisor to Control Arms.

He is author of Foreign Aid and Landmine Clearance and has also worked as a humanitarian aid worker and journalist in 15 countries including Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

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