Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa


FCO Logo
Friday 12 June, 2009

Arms Trade Treaty: Arms in the wrong hands can wipe out a nation

More than a decade ago driving to and from work actually used to be a pleasure. Today you thank your lucky stars if you arrive to your destination without a major incident.

High unemployment and poverty has created a huge band of armed robbers and car jackers. Zimbabwe, like most African countries believes it is safe from its own citizens if it is armed to the teeth, so the defence budget will always surpass even that of health.

The result of our governments' paranoia is that we end up with small arms in the  wrong hands. Although Zimbabwe's cases of gun totting robbers is not as high as in  neighbouringSouth Africa, the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate.

The political and economic decline has also seen a large number of defene forces deserting and taking up crime.  We have read several stories of policemen or  soldiers absconding with guns and the weapons later being used in robberies.

In the past year some of those small arms were also used by people linked to the then ruling party, ZANU PF to intimidate and attack opposition supporters. Press reports revealed that some members of the army and police had during that period used small arms to beat the opposition into submission.

Securing a robust Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) should be high priority for every country that values rule of law, human rights and democracy. The ATT should be a legally  binding agreement between States that should be used to assess whether or not to  exportconventional arms. Every government owes it to its nationals to ensure that  the globalarms market is regulated to prevent weapons landing in the hands of human
rights abusers, terrorists and insurgents.

Last year Zimbabwe experienced a tense moment when a ship docked in Durban, South Africa ready to offload arms shipped from China, at a time when political violence in the country had reached unprecedented levels. Human rights activists worked tirelessly to ensure the arms would not find their way into Zimbabwe. Worries were that the arms would be used against civillians seen as enemies of the State.

It is sad to note that on 31 October 2008, at the United Nations General Assembly Zimbabwe and the United States voted against a resolution towards the establishment of  an ATT while 147 countries voted in favour and 18 abstained.

Any government that believes in unfettered access to arms must know that one day those very same arms might be turned against it - Africa bears massive evidence of this.  Irresponsible trade in arms threatens any efforts towards world peace and sustainable development.

A group of 150 students will on 15 June visit the Foreign Office to start what is a  week of action to support moves towards an Arms Trade Treaty. The United Kingdom needs other nations to help make the arms market safe.

  • Share this with:

As someone who was involved in campaigning for the Oxfam-Amnesty-IANSA Million Faces petition for a Small Arms Treaty right from the time when there were only six countries supporting and a million faces seemed an enormous mountain claim, I remember how satisfying it was to see the result of that vote at the General Assembly. Of course at the time the Zimbabwe vote paled into insignificance. But people who use guns don't pay much attention to losing votes, it takes effective legislation to turn off the tap of supply.

Posted by OwenE2 on June 18, 2009 at 08:36 PM BST #

Thanks for drawing attention to the Arms Trade Treaty campaign. As an Oxfam campaigner I was involved in the Oxfam/Amnesty/IANSA Million Faces petition from the time when only six countries were supporting the proposal. Achieving the million faces and sufficient UN support seemed an almost impossible goal, so you can imagine how gratifying that vote was. At the time Zimbabwe's non-engagement seemed almost incidental, but of course - as the shipment incident showed - a treaty that prevents arms shipments to areas of conflict and human rights abuse is potentially a great step forward in preventing the entrenchment of an oppressive regime.

Posted by OwenE2 on June 23, 2009 at 12:11 PM BST #

Sorry about that duplication, I thought I'd lost the first message. Was it ever established what happened to the Durban arms shipment? I hope it didn't find its way to Zimbabwe via a roundabout route.

Posted by OwenE2 on July 14, 2009 at 11:44 AM BST #

I think any treaty aimed at small arms limitation is bound to fail. Small arms are cheap to produce and easy to smuggle, especially in countries with high levels of corruption. Further, as you point out, the govt. itself uses small arms to oppress its own people, and there is no real hope that Zimbabwe or other such countries are going to be unable to obtain small arms, irrespective of any treaty. Most importantly, however, is the fact that focusing on the weapons is a distraction from the larger problem. You said, rightly "High unemployment and poverty has created a huge band of armed robbers and car jackers." this is absolutely correct, and so long as countries such as Zimbabwe have crushing poverty, violence of some sort can be expected.

Posted by colin on July 14, 2009 at 07:05 PM BST #

Colin, you're too pessimistic. A rigorous and properly policed export licensing system including effective monitoring of end-user certificates accompanied by other measures including controls on brokerage activity should make it possible to control at least a large part of the trade. Large-scale small arms production is generally licensed and supervised by governments and disposals of redundant equipment by national security forces are a major component of the second-hand market. So control is not impossible with adequate effort on the part of governments who have signed up to an international control regime.

Posted by OwenE2 on July 25, 2009 at 08:12 AM BST #

Sadly the day after leaving my comment in reply to Colin, the news tells me that British parts were used in the Israeli planes used to attack Gaza at the beginning of the year. I thought our arms control regime was one we were offering as an example to other countries - sales into conflict zones, countries perpetrating human rights abuses, etc.

Posted by OwenE2 on July 26, 2009 at 10:52 PM BST #

I would love to be more optimistic about the possibilities, however I have yet to see a small arms control regime that did much of anything. You say that most arms manufacture is controlled by governments, however, it only takes one rogue producer to muck up the whole deal. This also overlooks the uncontrolled, and uncontrollable weapons that already exist on the market. There are plenty of states that would happily sell arms to a country like Zimbabwe in spite of any arms agreement, even if they are signatories of same (think North Korea and missile parts) Further, all of this distracts from the larger problem places like Zimbabwe have. They are failed states, and, as such, starvation, poverty and inevitably, violence are unavoidable, independent of the presence or absence of firearms. Deal with the underling issues and violence will disappear, dont deal with the issues, and violence will continue irrespective of any arms control scheme.

Posted by Colin on July 31, 2009 at 08:49 PM BST #

I should also add that control of weapons brokering is next to impossible. There are plenty of people willing to run guns if the money is right and millions of guns waiting to be sold. If you were talking about larger, more sophisticated weapons like aircraft or tanks then id say you might have a shot at it, but with small arms, not a chance. Additionally, this says nothing about the arms that are already in the country, Im no expert on Zimbabwe, but im guessing there is no shortage of guns for people willing to use them.

Posted by colin on July 31, 2009 at 08:59 PM BST #

Post a Comment:
  • HTML Syntax: NOT allowed




Tag cloud



FCO bloggers

FCO partners overseas

FCO websites

UK government websites