New Campaign to Control International Transfers of Arms

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2003 Volume 24 Issue 4

October 9, 2003 saw the launch of the “Control Arms” campaign. This 3-year program, a joint effort by Amnesty International, Oxfam International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), seeks government support for an International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to control the supply of weapons, and also calls on governments to provide community-level safety to reduce the demand for arms.

The current situation

According to the 2003 CRS Report for Congress, the total value of the annual global transfer of arms is over $25-billion US, with two-thirds of the arms going to developing countries. The five major suppliers – the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China (the permanent members of the UN Security Council) – account for 80 per cent of all arms supplies. These weapons exacerbate armed conflict, inflict extraordinary suffering on populations around the globe, and fuel more than three-dozen ongoing wars. Yet there are no international controls on the arms trade.

The uncontrolled proliferation and misuse of arms lead to greater social and economic inequalities. Sustainable development can be undermined as high costs of major weapon systems add to the debt load of developing nations and displace funding for education, health, and other social programs. An average of US$22-billion a year is spent on arms by countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. According to the UN Millennium Development report these funds, if redirected, could achieve universal primary education (with an estimated cost of $10-billion a year) and reduce infant and maternal mortality ($12-billion a year).

Although small arms and light weapons make up a small proportion of global trade in dollar value, they have a disproportionate and devastating impact on human safety and security. According to statistics gathered by the Small Arms Survey, there are over 600 million small arms in circulation around the world – one for every 10 people on the planet – and over 500,000 people a year are killed by these weapons, that is, one death every minute. Small arms are the weapons of choice in most recent wars and armed conflicts and have been labelled ‘weapons of mass destruction’ by civil society groups.

And the problem is not restricted to war zones. Amnesty International has documented persistent serious human rights violations such as unlawful killings, abduction, rape, and torture by state security forces in one-third of all countries. The easy availability of arms also fuels violent crime and makes disputes and domestic violence more lethal. Many of the weapons and ammunition used to commit such crimes are obtained through legal international arms transfers – arms transfers that must be stopped.

We need to act now

“A growing group of governments is also realizing that an unrestrained arms bazaar is not compatible with global peace and stability,” writes Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares. “It’s a good time to forge a potent alliance of civil society and activist governments to tackle this problem head on.” These states, including key EU members and Canada, support efforts to establish clear international principles and universal standards, including the ATT, to control arms transfers, and are cooperating with civil society in their efforts to confront this problem.

Ultimately, states are responsible for controlling arms – both within their borders through national legislation, and by ensuring that export regulations respect international human rights and humanitarian law. The 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects produced a Programme of Action (PoA).The PoA mandates all UN member states to work on the problems caused by the proliferation and misuse of small arms at the national, regional, and international levels, and in cooperation with civil society. It also affirms that arms export criteria should be subject to existing human rights and humanitarian law.

The Control Arms program seeks to contribute to these on-going efforts and to garner government, donor, and civil society support for the ATT and community-based initiatives, including community policing, gun-free zones, alternative livelihoods, and weapons collection and gun destruction programs that deal with the demand side of the problem. The campaign operates at multiple levels.

  • At the international level: Governments are urged to agree to an Arms Trade Treaty by 2006, and to prevent the export of arms to destinations where they are likely to be used in the committing of grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
  • At the regional level: Governments are urged to develop and strengthen regional arms control agreements to uphold international human rights and humanitarian law.
  • At the national level: Governments are urged to improve state capacity and their own accountability to control arms transfers and protect citizens from armed violence, in line with international laws and standards.
  • Community level: Civil society and local government agencies are urged to take effective action to improve community safety by reducing the local availability and demand for arms.

In Canada, Project Ploughshares (a co-founder of IANSA), Oxfam Canada, and Amnesty International (English-speaking office) supported the launch of the Control Arms campaign by issuing a press release and background document outlining the campaign’s objectives, and distributing the campaign report to members of the Small Arms Working Group of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee and to contacts within the government. Ploughshares will continue to raise awareness of arms trade issues among our constituents through public engagement and education programs. As well, we will continue our policy development work with the Canadian government. Through the CIDA-funded policy development project that we coordinate for the Small Arms Working Group, we will work to develop the capacity of this network to dialogue with the government on issues related to small arms.

Much work still needs to be done to ensure increased Canadian government support for international arms control commitments. In particular, Canada must continue to work with like-minded governments to provide the political and financial backing needed to see that these instruments are implemented and strengthened (for a full description of Ploughshares policy recommendations on arms control see The Ploughshares Monitor, Vol. 24, no. 1, Spring 2003).

Canada remains a significant arms exporter, mostly to the US. The lack of transparency and accountability on military sales to the United States, especially for Canadian-built systems that are re-exported from the United States, needs to be rectified. Canada also needs to ensure that Canadian military goods do not go to countries that are identified as being in major and systematic violation of existing human rights and humanitarian laws.

Shattered lives

The report, Shattered Lives: the case for tough international arms control, was produced to support the Control Arms campaign and is a comprehensive overview of the problems and suggested solutions. Among the report’s findings:

  • The aftermath of September 11 and the resulting ‘war on terror’ have fuelled weapons proliferation, rather than focus political will on controlling arms. US and UK military assistance and related security aid to ‘friendly’ countries (such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines) have increased considerably. The deals that have been struck pay scant attention to the recipient countries’ track record on human rights and humanitarian law or to development concerns. The G8 recently allocated $20-billion to prevent terrorists’ acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The same type of partnership has not been formed to deal with the proliferation and misuse of conventional weapons, including small arms.
  • The easy availability of arms increases the incidence of armed violence, triggers conflicts, prolongs wars, and fuels poverty. Civilians are increasingly targeted. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in recent armed conflicts, 80 per cent of all casualties were civilians. The distinction between civilian and military is becoming increasingly blurred as civilian infrastructure is used for military purposes, civilians are used to shield air and ground attacks, and are forced to provide shelter, sustenance, and sexual gratification to military and paramilitary forces. With easy-to-use and lightweight small arms the weapons of choice in most armed conflict, we are seeing more and younger children as combatants.
  • Uncontrolled proliferation has meant that weapons possession is becoming more widespread and destructive in many societies. Guns are becoming an integral part of life in many communities and cities around the globe. In some countries, such as Iraq, there are more guns than people. Among farmers in northern Uganda, AK47s have replaced spears, and in Somalia, children are now named “Uzi” or “AK.” Not surprisingly, small arms have also become a common instrument of death. The barrel of the gun has replaced many traditional methods of conflict resolution and the possession of a firearm in many cultures is now the ultimate symbol of power and status.

Arming the Congo

More than three million civilians have been killed or have died from hunger and disease as a consequence of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) since August 1998. This conflict has been characterized by illegal killings, torture, and rape of civilians by forces on all sides. Despite this catalogue of human misery, many countries have continued to supply arms to the DRC. The former Zairian government received arms from many countries, including Belgium, China, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Deliveries of light weapons and associated military equipment from Albania, China, Egypt, Israel, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, and other countries to the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have been used in the conflict.

In November 2001, around Kisangani, the scene of intense fighting involving many civilian deaths, Amnesty International found evidence of foreign military supplies in the form of ammunition cartridges for the following weapons: North Korean, Chinese, and Russian heavy machine guns; Russian revolvers; South African assault rifles; Chinese anti-aircraft weapons; and Russian, Bulgarian, or Slovak automatic grenade launchers.

Supply routes and methods vary. British pilots and air cargo companies are not banned by the UK government from supplying weapons from overseas to armed forces in the DRC responsible for mass abuses of human rights. In addition, between 1993 and 1998, a time of rapidly escalating violent conflict and grave violations of human rights, Italy exported arms, munitions, and explosives worth nearly US$10-million to the DRC.

From Shattered Lives: the case for tough international arms control by Amnesty International and Oxfam International.

Arming the Philippines

In late 2001, the USA offered the government of the Philippines military equipment worth more than US$100-million – including helicopters and transport planes and 30,000 M16 rifles – to fight various armed groups. The transfers were agreed as part of the US government’s ‘war on terror’. The US military has also provided counter-insurgency training. This training does not incorporate rigorous human rights safeguards, and systems of military accountability in the Philippines have proved weak. As a result, US military aid risks exacerbating patterns of human rights violations, aggravating local tensions, and prolonging the armed conflict in central Mindanao.

There is already a thriving illegal market in small arms in the Philippines, and there are fears that the injection of military equipment from the US – which includes small arms – may contribute to a further proliferation of these weapons. Through loss, theft, or illegal sale, munitions originating with the Philippine government forces sometimes end up in the hands of criminal and armed political groups. In Mindanao, for example, more than 70 per cent of the population own one or more guns. Machine guns can be bought for as little as US$375, and revolvers for a mere US$15. As many as 82 per cent of homicides involve small arms.

From Shattered Lives: the case for tough international arms control by Amnesty International and Oxfam International.

The full report, plus details about the campaign can be found at the Control Arms website.

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