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POLITICS: NGOs Hold Arms Exporters to Account for Abuses

Suzanne Hoeksema

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 8 2009 (IPS) - With 2,000 people dying daily in armed violence fuelled by irresponsible arms transfers, talks to create an international treaty regulating these weapons can no longer be delayed, says a coalition of NGOs in a new report “Dying for Action” published Wednesday.

While nuclear disarmament is high on the U.N. agenda these days, 90 percent of casualties in conflict areas are caused by small arms such as submachine guns, mortars and hand grenades, according to the Red Cross.

The main contributors to the report, Amnesty International and Oxfam argue that governments should be prevented from exporting arms to countries where there is a substantial risk that those arms will be used for serious human rights violations.

France, one of the main exporters of arms to Guinea, recently ceased all military trade with the West African country after the Guinean army broke up a civilian demonstration on Sep. 28 with extraordinary use of violence, including incidents of rape by soldiers.

A release by Amnesty Thursday said that Guinean police officers had been photographed in the capital Conakry on Oct. 1 carrying 56mm ‘Cougar’ tear gas grenade launchers, made in France, as well as kinetic impact grenades produced by the same French manufacturer.

France’s decision to suspend trade comes too late for the people who have died and suffered from violence, charged Brian Woods of the Military, Security and Police Team at Amnesty International.

Woods urged that the essence of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to be discussed by governments at the United Nations in New York this month, should be preventive rather than punitive in order to avert humanitarian crises.

The NGO report shows that around 2.1 million people have died directly or indirectly as a result of armed violence since 153 governments agreed in a 2006 vote on the need to control illegal and illicit small arms trafficking.

The largest producer, supplier and importer of small arms, the United States, voted against the proposal, while 24 countries abstained, including major arms exporters like China and Russia, and major importers like Pakistan and Egypt.

Armed conflicts, most notably in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Sri Lanka, and the world’s deadliest war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), caused more than 700,000 deaths.

While the proliferation of small illicit arms is not a direct cause of war, the abundance of these weapons in fragile states seriously exacerbates armed conflicts and pushes up the number of casualties.

However, not only conflict or post-conflict states suffer from irresponsible arms trafficking.

In her address to the “Dying for Action” conference held at the U.N. headquarters on Wednesday, Novelle Grant, a senior official representing the Jamaica Police Force, said that since the 1960s, when guns became prevalent on the island, criminal violence has become far more deadly, with murder rates now among the highest in the world.

Another panelist, Frances Mutuku Nguli from PeaceNet Kenya, said that traditional conflicts over land between cattle herders and farmers have escalated and left many Kenyans dead and wounded, with the trafficking of arms proliferating beyond state control.

The uncontrolled arms trade also indirectly hinders development efforts and exacerbates poverty, said the ambassador of Norway to the U.N., Mona Juul. Jamaica, for example, has suffered an estimated cumulative loss of 57 percent of its GDP because of crime.

One of the biggest problems in controlling illegal arms trade is state complicity, said Brigadier-General Mujahid Alam, head of the Pretoria Office of the U.N. Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).

“It is not about so-called diversion of arms into the hands or armed groups which goes unseen. Most arms enter the country legally and are purposefully made illegal by complicity of national and regional authorities, with DRC as the most devastating example”, he said.

So what could a new treaty to control arms trade really achieve? Are states, and the arms companies that work within them, likely to stick to the ATT – and what happens when they do not?

Paul van den IJssel, the Dutch ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, told IPS that some governments like that of the United States may fear that the ATT will interfere with sovereignty and national security, but that fear is unfounded since governments will keep their right to legally sell and buy weapons for the purpose of “national self-defence and law enforcement”.

Van den Ijssel and Debbie Hillier, a policy adviser with Oxfam, stressed that it is the responsibility of exporter states, in dialogue with arms companies, to follow a case-by-case risk assessment based on the foreseeable likelihood the weapons would be misused to harm civilians. However, it remains unclear what the consequences of non-compliance would be.

While there are examples of arms suppliers being brought justice – the most prominent being the Russian dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 and inspired the Hollywood film “Lord of War” – an international treaty would make it much harder “for any warlord to obtain new arms and ammunition”, said Jeremy Hobbs, head of Oxfam International.

While governments are often complicit in shady arms deals, the actual transactions are usually conducted by intermediaries which operate on the border of legality and illegality, such as Aerocom, a Moldovan air cargo firm; Henrich Thomet, a Swiss arms broker; and Bao Ping Ma/Poly Technologies, a Chinese arms manufacturing firm, some of which were allegedly involved in violating U.N. arms embargos on Angola, Liberia and DRC, as reported by Amnesty last month.

Hobbs said that “eight out of every 10 governments want to get an Arms Trade Treaty agreed and ordinary citizens are calling for one too. This month we need the majority of enlightened countries at the U.N. to make it happen. An intransigent few cannot be allowed to keep their foot on the brakes forever.”

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