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Arms Transfers to Abusive End-users

Thanks to the efforts of the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the international community was reminded in 1998 of the impact of the proliferation of conventional weapons, especially small arms and light weapons, culminating in vast humanitarian crises. In a report on Africa to the Security Council in April, Mr. Annan made several important recommendations to tackle the trade in arms, both legal and illicit: that arms-exporting countries should exercise restraint, especially with regard to the export of arms into zones of conflict or tension in Africa; that U.N. member states should pass laws enabling prosecution in national courts of violations of U.N. arms embargoes; that the U.N. should play an important role in the compiling, tracking, and publicizing of information on arms trafficking; and that African governments should: harmonize policies against illicit arms trafficking, participate in the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms, establish supplementary subregional registers of conventional arms, reduce purchases of arms and ammunition to 1.5 percent of their gross domestic product, and maintain zero growth on defense budgets for the next decade.

In response to Mr. Annan’s initiative, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) passed a resolution in June that underlined the need for inter-African cooperation in the search for solutions to the problems posed by the proliferation of light weapons and stressed “the primary role that the OAU should play in the coordination of efforts in this area.” This resolution came on the heels of the announcement by the government of Mali that it had adopted a voluntary moratorium on the import, export, and manufacture of small arms and light weapons. At a meeting of twenty-one governments in Oslo in July Mali proposed to expand this initiative to include all thirteen member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Small-Arms Campaign
Along with the proposal for a West Africa moratorium, the Oslo meeting saw the de facto launching of an international campaign to curtail the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Pressed by NGOs and world leaders like Kofi Annan to respond more effectively to the vast humanitarian crises in Africa and elsewhere, the governments of Canada, Norway, and Belgium took the lead in mobilizing support for an international agenda on small arms and light weapons. In a statement at the conclusion of their meeting, they called for the prevention of illicit transfers, the strengthening of controls on legal transfers, the collection and destruction of surplus weapons, the strengthening of customs and police capabilities, the marking of weapons to enhance traceability, and observance by all states of international humanitarian law. The emphasis in the meeting was on the illicit trade, which many saw as the primary stimulus behind the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Moreover, the government of Canada proposed discussion on an international convention banning the transfer of weapons to non-state actors, a proposal that, along with the emphasis on the illicit trade, immediately fell subject to strong criticism from NGOs and a small number of governments. They preferred a two-front attack on both commercial and government-to-government transfers, regardless of the nature of the recipient (state or non-state actor), as long as the latter remained in compliance with basic standards of human rights and humanitarian law.

While loudly declaring that a small-arms campaign could not be successful without the active participation of NGOs, the governments at the Oslo meeting failed to extend a general invitation to expert NGOs. Yet it was NGOs that had given the initial impetus for the campaign, raising the issue of small arms and light weapons as a primary contributor to humanitarian crises on many occasions prior to 1998. They began to coordinate their efforts in 1998, launching an “action network” in August that was an international campaign in all but name. At the end of a three-day meeting in Canada, representatives of NGOs from the North and the South, as well as international NGOs, set up the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and elaborated a policy framework, a plan of action, as well as an organizational structure which might inform national “campaigns” worldwide. In recognition of the complexity of small-arms proliferation, participants pressed for a multifaceted approach with multiple objectives, targeting both the supply and the demand for small arms and light weapons, all the various actors involved—governments, nonstate actors, and middlemen—and all forms of the trade—legal, covert, and illicit transfers.

Governments and NGOs took a further step as part of this emerging campaign at meetings in Brussels in mid-October. At the end of a two-day government-sponsored conference attended by ninety-eight governments, as well as numerous NGOs, a Chairman’s Call for Action was issued. This was followed by a one-day NGO conference attended by more than 200 people from dozens of countries, which endorsed the IANSA initiative and further developed its objectives and strategies.

U.N. Arms Embargoes

While the world was slowly turning its attention to the global proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the United Nations Security Council continued its scattershot approach of targeting countries with particularly horrendous humanitarian crises, using arms embargoes as its instrument of choice. Arms embargoes could have been an effective tool in preventing weapons from entering zones of armed conflict, but as employed by the U.N.—without implementing mechanisms or active enforcement—they were, withthe exception of the embargo on Iraq, toothless and of largely symbolic value.

Seven international arms embargoes remained in effect in 1998 (on Angolan rebel forces, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Rwandan rebel forces, Sierra Leone, and Somalia). The embargo on Sierra Leone, imposed in October 1997, was lifted in June after the deposed government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was restored to power in February by forces of ECOMOG, the Economic Community of West African States Cease-Fire Monitoring Group, assisted by a British security firm, Sandline International. The involvement of Sandline stirred controversy, as its sale of arms and ammunition to President Kabbah, with the seeming approval of the U.K. government, appeared to constitute a violation of the embargo, which the U.K. had been instrumental in bringing about. The affair proved intensely embarrassing to the government of Tony Blair, whose feeble suggestion that in the Sierra Leone case the end justified the means ran directly counter to the ethical foreign policy his government had come into office espousing. Part of the problem, typical of several previous U.N. resolutions imposing arms embargoes as well, was poor drafting of the Sierra Leone resolution by the U.K., which by applying a broad brush thereby failed to exclude either the exiled leadership or the ECOMOG forces from the resolution’s prohibitions, whereas the public assumption appeared to be that the embargo applied solely to the military government in power in Freetown. In lifting the arms embargo on Sierra Leone following the return of President Kabbah, the Security Council retained an embargo on the ousted military leaders, who resorted to armed attacks on civilians as they fled the capital and in the countryside afterwards.

In March, the Security Council imposed a new arms embargo on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in response to the outbreak of armed conflict in the Kosovo region. Like its predecessors, the embargo proved hollow, prompting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to declare in August that states’ failure to provide sufficient financial support for the embargo meant that no comprehensive monitoring regime could be established. In the absence of active monitoring of arms flows to either the Yugoslav government or the rebels in Kosovo, the international community, he said, risked “once again being placed in a position where it is only dealing with the symptoms of a conflict through its humanitarian agencies.”

In Argentina, information surfaced implicating a former defense minister in violations of an earlier arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia at the height of the war in that region. The case involved 6,500 tons of arms for Croatia, supposedly shipped to Panama, which didn’t have an army. Typically, the case was first reported in the Argentinian press. The media and NGOs still appeared to be the only means by which violations of U.N. arms embargoes could be brought to light, once again underlining the inertia of the U.N. system in this regard—with the notable exceptions of Iraq (a special case) and Rwanda.

On a more positive note, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1196 on September 16, responding to the secretary-general’s April report on Africa and encouraging member states to adopt legislation making the violation of U.N. arms embargoes a criminal offense. It also asked the Security Council committees established to monitor each embargo—which have been singularly ineffective—to report annually on the implementation of the embargoes and possible violations. This was the first time the Security Council appeared to be heeding the advice of the International Commission of Inquiry on Rwanda, which had been clamoring for policy changes since March 1996.

Revival of the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda)
In late December 1997, the Security Council released the October 1996 report of the International Commission of Inquiry, known as UNICOI, which had been set up by the Security Council in September 1995 to investigate allegations of violations of the international arms embargo on Rwanda and had been dormant since late 1996. The delay in the release was attributed to the desire not to be seen to be intervening in the fighting that had just broken out in eastern Congo (Zaire at the time) in October 1996. The report contained additional information on a violation of the embargo documented by Human Rights Watch in 1995, involving a shipment of arms to Rwanda from the Seychelles in 1994, which served to highlight both the intricate nature of the illicit trade in arms and the utility of the type of inquiry the commission was undertaking.

Revived by the Security Council in April, the commission released a further report in August. This, too, was a useful study of the role of the arms trade in the evolving security situation in the Great Lakes region that showed that this issue cannot be addressed by focusing on a single actor (i.e., the former Rwandan army, the ex-FAR) but must involve ongoing investigation and governmental action on a subregional basis.

Arms Proliferation in Africa
Africa continued to be the continent most seriously beset by armed conflicts involving gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law. These conflicts were fed by a steady flow of arms. The Great Lakes region and the neighboring states of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda were heavily involved in these conflicts—either directly, or indirectly as transshipment countries for arms or as training and staging grounds for rebel forces. The conflict stretched from Sudan in the north, where a brutal civil war entered its fifteenth year, southward to the Great Lakes, the scene of repeated massacres and even genocide in the 1990s, to Angola, where the unstable peace that had governed relations between the government and UNITA rebels since the 1994 Lusaka Protocol started to unravel.

Concerted international actions to address these conflicts and the serious abuses that characterized them were few and far between. Discussion of an international arms embargo on Burundi was postponed to give regional sanctions and peace negotiations led by former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere a chance of succeeding. Yet both sides continued to receive significant amount of arms, apparently on a regular basis. On the government side, many of these weapons arrived at Bujumbura airport directly on flights from eastern Europe, often Bulgaria. In Sudan, the U.S. cruise missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant on August20 served to obscure the more urgent humanitarian problem of the civil war and the massive stocks and endless flows of conventional weapons that have fueled it, imperiling the lives and livelihoods of millions of civilians, and threatening to destabilize the entire region. In Angola, too, weapons continued to flow in to both sides, even though the primary conduit for the UNITA rebels, Zambia, was closed off hastily after Angola threatened to take military action against its neighbor.

In Rwanda, civil strife also continued, as did arms flows. On a slightly hopeful note, the French National Assembly, after four years of official denials, agreed to examine the French role in the 1994 genocide, pressed by scathing reports in the French media and from NGOs like Human Rights Watch. In hearings in March-June, Bernard Debré, France’s minister of cooperation in 1994, acknowledged that the French government had continued to supply arms to the Rwandan government “between five and eight days, perhaps ten days after the massacres started,” explaining that this was “because we didn’t immediately realize what was happening.” François Léotard, the minister of defense in 1994, suggested that France could not control arms deliveries from private companies to Goma in eastern Zaire, directly across the border from Gisenyi in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch and media reports had indicated that the French government had continued to supply arms to the génocidaires for at least two months after the start of the genocide, including after the imposition of an international arms embargo on May 17, via Goma.

Developments in 1998 again made clear that no discussion of the role of the arms trade in Africa in the 1990s can omit South Africa’s role. The nation’s arms sales rose more than 143 percent in 1997, according to defense industry figures, making South Africa the fourth largest supplier of weaponry to the developing world, especially African states. Sales included U.S.$7 million worth of lethal equipment to Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo (Brazzaville), all of which were involved in armed conflict in 1997. In 1998, arms producer Denel signed a U.S.$25 million contract with the government of Algeria, which was engaged in a brutal internal conflict with Islamist opponents, to sell unmanned surveillance planes. A sale of Rooivalk attack helicopters was also being considered. In June, South Africa ratified the Mine Ban Treaty.

There continued to be reports of illegal arms shipments from and through South African territory to conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, but government officials denied this. In August, the chairman of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, Kader Asmal, invited organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to provide the government with information about gun running, while stressing, in the case of the DRC, that “there is no need to investigate; there is no complaint. South Africans are not supplying arms to rebels in the DRC.” He added that South Africans found to be trafficking arms outside the country would be prosecuted under the Foreign Military Assistance Bill, which was passed by parliament in May and barred South Africans from serving as mercenaries and from recruiting, using, training, financing, and supporting rebel groups. A parliamentary report on arms trafficking released in September recommended tighter border controls and reducing the number of international airports.



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Human RIghts Watch