Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Fewer guns, less wars

Africa may benefit from the enforcement of the UN Arms Trade Treaty. But some countries, including Egypt, have yet to sign up, writes Haytham Nuri

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a document that aims to regulate international trade in conventional weapons, went into effect on 25 December. The treaty was signed by 130 countries, but only 61 have ratified it so far.

It may be good news for Africa, the continent worst hit by civil wars and the attendant scourges of famine, displacement and human rights violations. Richard Yakini, a human rights activist in South Sudan, says that the free flow of weaponry, through legal and illegal channels, into Africa has allowed ethnic and political strife to get out of hand.

Yakini told the Weekly that Africa’s strife-related afflictions could be gauged by the cases filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC). “Africa needs a strong agreement to stop weapons and needs the world to help it in this quest, but many interests stand in the way.”

Most cases brought to the ICC’s attention are Africa-based. Conflicts in Darfur, northern Uganda, Liberia, Kenya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have all featured human rights violations.

According to the ATT, trade in all types of conventional weapons must be closely regulated. This goes for sales of tanks and fighter planes as well as rocket launchers and small weapons.

South Kordofan activist Nagwa Kanada says that the trade in light weapons is the “scourge of tribal and ethnic conflicts.” Oxfam estimates trade in light weapons to be around $85 billion per year.

The US is the biggest weapon exporter worldwide, followed by Russia, France and Britain. Of all the conventional weapons sold annually worldwide, developing countries buy nearly 85 per cent, according to the news website allafrica.com.

In his book, The Hidden Market: Corruption in the International Arms Trade, political economist Joe Roeber argues that corruption is an integral part of the weapons trade, a fact that may complicate regulatory efforts. Of all the cash related to corruption worldwide, nearly 40 per cent is generated through arms deals, Roeber wrote.

Of Africa’s 54 nations, only 30 signed the ATT. The signatories do not include four North African countries. Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have all expressed reservations about the treaty, arguing that it may curb their ability to maintain security in a turbulent region.

The ATT’s provisions require all member states to form a national agency to track their stockpiles of conventional weapons and submit it for annual inspection. The ATT Secretariat will organise an annual conference to discuss enforcement and amend the treaty as needed.

Of all the nations of the Greater Lakes Region in Africa, only Rwanda and Burundi joined the ATT. Kenya, Uganda, the DRC and Tanzania are still thinking about it.

It is remarkable that the DRC didn’t join the treaty, considering that just over a decade ago it was the site of one of the deadliest wars since World War II. The 1997-2003 conflict, dubbed the Great War of Africa, involved more than 20 armed groups and claimed the lives of over five million people, mostly from starvation and disease.

Kenyan journalist Kassem Mohamed says that the proliferation of conventional arms in the DRC has reinforced the climate of lawlessness in that country, leading to high rates of rape and sex slavery. Kenya is also affected by the illegal trade in weapons, notes Mohamed.

Ethnic strife in the northeast of the country, combined with draught, has forced tens of thousands of people to migrate to Nairobi and other cities.

“The consequences of the trade in illegal weapons were evident in the tribal clashes that followed the 2008 elections,” Mohamed said, referring to the turmoil for which the ICC interrogated and later acquitted President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Wars in Mali, eastern Chad, the CAR, Liberia and Sierra Leone were also linked to the proliferation of small weapons. The recruitment of children as soldiers is just one complication of this problem. Thousands of children take part in Africa’s civil wars, according to UN sources.

In his book, A Long Way Gone, Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah tells the story of a child who was abducted from his village and forced to serve as a soldier. He was later saved by local groups sponsored by Save the Children and Oxfam. Experts working for the latter two organisations believe that there are 9,000 child soldiers active in African wars.

International efforts are being exerted to deny conventional weapons to regimes known for human rights abuses, such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville.

Eritrea and Ethiopia haven’t signed the ATT, but Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Congo-Brazzaville have joined it.

Enforcing the regulations on conventional arms is not going to be easy, say Yakini and Mohamed. One obstacle is that the international community lacks transparency in matters related to arms trading.

Another is that powerful individuals engaged in the shadowy business of weapons trade may find ways to ignore or circumvent the regulations. African countries, Mohamed notes, often lack the monitoring capacity needed to enforce regulations.

“After two decades of democracy and regular elections in Africa, armies are once again taking the lead in domestic politics,” Yakini noted.

The prevalence of religious terrorist groups, “whether Islamist, such as the Shebab, or Christian, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army,” have revived the need for powerful armies, said Yakini.

“The need for armies makes it harder to maintain oversight over the armaments of the state, even in cases where [governments] are dictatorial or have poor records in human rights,” he added.

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