AFRICA: What Does International Arms Trade Treaty Mean for Africa?
Stopping the Madness
United Nations officials say they found hundreds of bodies piled up after an attack by rebels in South Sudan last week. A year ago in Mali, a rebellion by desert nomads reignited when Tuareg separatists who had fought as mercenaries for Muammar Qaddafi returned home with heavy weapons looted from Libya’s armories after the strongman’s fall.
All over the continent, from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, conflict has erupted. National governments and international agencies are trying to head off future violence in Africa – and elsewhere around the world – through a multilateral treaty to regulate the $70 billion to $85 billion international conventional arms business.
The Arms Trade Treaty was overwhelmingly approved by the United Nations General Assembly in April 2013 and nearly 120 countries have signed the treaty. But the pact will only go into effect when 50 countries ratify the treaty. So far, only 31 have done so.
Treaty signatories have included some big arms exporters like the United States, Brazil and Sweden but others like Russia and China have not. And while more than 20 African countries have signed the treaty, only two – Mali and Nigeria – have ratified it.
The ATT regulates the international trade in conventional arms, from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. The treaty’s aim is to foster peace and security by thwarting uncontrolled destabilizing arms flows to conflict regions — like Africa. “It will prevent human rights abusers and violators of the law of war from being supplied with arms. And it will help keep warlords, pirates, and gangs from acquiring these deadly tools,” according to the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs.
At a gathering hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, on Wednesday (April 23) government experts on Africa and arms controls said signing and ratifying the treaty wasn’t enough to stop the flow of small arms like machine guns, grenades, mortars and rocket launchers.
“The ATT is not a solution in itself. It’s a tool,” said Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, adding that it was important for individual governments to get control of “international transfers and national stockpiles of weapons” whether they were held by the military, local militias or demobilized rebel groups.
He said that securing weapons stockpiles was an area where the United States could help struggling countries. The State Department’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs has helped countries like Niger, Burundi and Angola secure stockpiles or destroy old munitions. Since 2001, in Africa alone, 250,000 small weapons have been destroyed and 350,000 have been marked with unique serial numbers with U.S. assistance to maintain inventory controls of military and police arsenals and help track missing or stolen weapons.
Raymond Gilpin, dean of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, agreed, saying the treaty is “by no means a silver bullet.”
He noted that in some explosions of violence in Africa like the Rwanda genocide of 1994, “machetes can be as deadly or more deadly” than firearms. One of the basic problems in controlling the movement of arms – legal and illegal – in Africa is the lack of basic data: Just how many guns does a government own? Who has control of them? “Most African countries don’t have a baseline for tracking weapons,” Gilpin said.
He made several recommendations for closing the gap including public/private partnerships to make the supply chain more transparent and “muscular international diplomacy” with countries that aid and abet weapons trafficking.
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