/ 13 March 2013

Arms trade: SA must lead by example

Arms Trade: Sa Must Lead By Example
Later this month, the UN Security Council will vote on whether to lift the arms embargo on South Sudan. Doing so would be a terrible mistake

Marie was forced to flee from her village in the east Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when it was surrounded by soldiers who opened fire on the inhabitants accusing them of collaboration with their enemies. The soldiers rampaged through, looting homes and setting many of them ablaze.

Pursuing the villagers as they fled into the surrounding forest, the soldiers continued firing their weapons. They raped dozens of the women and girls over the next two days.

Marie recalls: "I heard the cries of other women who had been caught by the military and were shouting, screaming."

In the DRC, mass rape and murder continue to be facilitated by the easy availability of weapons, arms and ammunition.

Next week in New York, world leaders will meet for nine days to finalise the text for a global arms trade treaty. Amnesty International is urging those taking part in the negotiations, for the sake of Marie and millions like her, to put human rights considerations ahead of profit margins and produce an effective arms trade treaty.

The world desperately needs the final agreement to ensure that no country or arms dealer will sell weapons, munitions or military equipment to governments or armed groups where there is a substantial risk that they will be used for atrocities or violent abuse.  

Arms transfers
At present, in spite of these risks, states such as China, France and the USA have supplied arms to Congo's security forces and some of these weapons have ended up in the hands of armed groups operating in eastern DRC.

In December 2011, South Africa reported to the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee its involvement in a transfer of 3 300 40mm cartridges to the Congolese National Police.

South Africa's arms exports are guided by its National Conventional Arms Control Act which states that South Africa "will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression and terrorism".

The Act requires the government to "avoid contributing to internal repression" and "avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights".

However Amnesty International is concerned that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, chaired by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe, appears to be authorising conventional arms sales to governments without the required scrutiny.

In spite of these gaps in practice, South Africa has been broadly supportive of a strong arms trade treaty but they must do more.

The abundance of small arms and light weapons has had a particularly devastating effect in Africa fuelling conflicts and instability in Somalia, Central African Republic and Sudan to name but a few.

Child soldiers
Just last month, Amnesty International documented the forced recruitment of children by armed Islamist groups in Mali. A strong arms trade treaty would stop the flow of arms to governments and armed groups suspected of using child soldiers.

As one of the few arms exporters on the continent, South Africa must take a principled stand and act as a driving force to bring together a strong, clear African voice at the negotiations.

China and Russia are very influential within the treaty negotiations, as two of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and two of the biggest arms exporters. South Africa can use its presence at the conference and its position as one of the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to push them to agree to the strongest possible treaty.

This could include lobbying China to expand the scope of the treaty to include loans and gifts of arms, which it wants to keep exempt and to ensure all conventional arms are covered including components and parts.

South Africans have already demonstrated their tenacity in blocking irresponsible arms transfers. At the height of the election violence in Zimbabwe in 2008, South Africa's transport workers mobilised and refused to unload arms carried on a Chinese freight ship en route to Zimbabwe.

Lawyers and church leaders then obtained a court order to stop the deadly cargo of the An Yue Jiang from being shipped through any of South Africa's ports.

Preventing such transfers
Transport workers in Mozambique, Namibia and Angola, mobilised by national trade unions and the International Workers' Federation also refused to unload the military equipment.

While it is an incredible testament to the workers in these countries that they took this stance, an arms trade treaty would provide a legal framework to prevent such transfers from taking place altogether, rather than requiring people to mobilise to prevent it once it is underway.

The South African government must follow the example set by its citizens and do all it can to ensure a strong arms trade treaty is agreed in New York.

The final arms trade treaty must include the golden rule that no state shall authorise arms transfers where there is substantial risk that those arms will be used to commit serious violations of human rights.

Without a robust arms trade treaty, people all over the continent like Marie will continue to suffer the bloody consequences of an irresponsible, profit-driven arms trade.

Noel Kututwa is Amnesty International's director for Southern Africa.