Bananas were being handed out outside the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town last week as part of an international arms trade protest. Bananas have more international trade regulations than weapons. Picture: Matthew Jordaan


UNITED NATIONS: South Africa has thrown its weight behind a proposed international treaty that would regulate global sales of conventional arms with the lofty aim of choking off black markets and denying weapons to repressive regimes, terrorists and nations at war.

More than 750 000 people are killed annually – about one every minute – by an unregulated $60 billion (about R480 billion) arms business whose logic dictates that war zones and police states are its greatest market.

Treaty proponents argue that while everything from food to petroleum is regulated internationally, the sale of conventional arms is not.

As a month-long negotiating conference got under way last week in New York, the draft treaty, in its current state, is already a weaker document than some European governments and many NGOs would like. But that is a consequence of trying to get dozens of countries with competing interests and different understandings of human rights to agree.

The contentious points still to be hammered out are: what weapons will be covered, what criteria will be used to deny arms sales, and how will the treaty be enforced.

The proposed arms trade treaty (ATT), in the works for six years, needs 65 nations to ratify it before it comes becomes legally binding on those countries.

“The ATT should be an international instrument that fills a glaring gap that currently exists in the global arms control system,” Baso Sangqu, South Africa’s UN ambassador, told the conference.

In its current state, the draft treaty would cover all conventional weapons, from small arms to tanks, warships and missile systems.

It would require ratifying countries to regulate both imports and exports, including parts, as well as weapons transhipment, and to register arms brokers operating on their territory.

The US is demanding that ammunition be excluded from the treaty, a point upsetting some African governments (including ours), who argue that most combat victims are African.

A South African diplomat said the US objection was practical, however. “The Americans are buying up ammunition from all over the world and it is impractical for them to mark all of them to be regulated,” he said.

But regulating weapons sales without regulating the bullets sold is useless, argues Joseph Dube, Africa co-ordinator for the International Action Network on Small Arms. “You can’t use a gun without ammunition,” he said.

Since the US must be on board to have a credible treaty, ammunition would probably be left out, the South African diplomat said.

As the negotiations began, the biggest questions were who defines what states should be ineligible to buy arms because they are deemed repressive, and who would enforce the new regulations?

Unlike the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which set up a new UN agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to verify and monitor it, there was little chance this treaty would create an international arms regulatory agency to enforce it, analysts said.

Because the NPT aimed to eliminate all nuclear weapons and prevent their spread, governments agreed to an agency that conducts intrusive inspections inside sovereign states, said Guy Lamb, who runs the arms management programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

A conventional arms treaty, on the other hand, Lamb said, did not seek to eliminate weapons. In fact it would recognise a country’s legitimate right to sell and buy arms for national defence. Instead, the treaty sought to keep arms out of the hands of human rights abusers.

But determining who is an abuser will almost certainly be left up to the judgement of the selling nation.

The draft treaty calls on governments to regulate their own arms sales. They alone will determine which buyers are human rights abusers ineligible for arms sales, and which are not.

“Implementation of all treaty obligations, including authorisations and assessments, shall be undertaken at the national level,” the draft says.

“Each state party shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures to implement it.”

Leaving states to enforce these regulations themselves would allow the US, for instance, to continue selling arms to Israel, though many countries might find it a repressive regime, and Russia to continue supplying Syria. It would also allow Gulf Arab countries to arm the Syrian rebels, for example, as those countries see them as freedom-fighters.

The proposed treaty does lay out criteria to assess a proposed sale. Arms deals contributing to human rights violations, including terrorism, genocide or other war crimes, should not be authorised, the treaty proposes.

Likewise, deals should not be approved for weapons that would undermine peace or prolong a conflict, be diverted to the black market, hurt the economy of the purchasing nation or if corruption were involved in the sale.

These are just guidelines, however, that selling nations can routinely ignore, since it will be left up to them to decide.

“We want a golden rule telling governments that arms transfers under consideration would be subject to a rigorous risk assessment, and if there is a substantial risk that the arms are likely to be used for serious violations of international human rights law then those transfers would not be permitted,” said Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s manager of arms control.

A reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the treaty might not be enough.

Tom Countryman, a US assistant secretary of state and the chief US delegate to the conference, said in an interview that though self-regulation might make the treaty look weak, it would compel countries that had no domestic regulatory system at all to put one in place. Only 52 countries today regulate their arms sales, according to Oxfam.

Treaty proponents believe creating new national regulations can close loopholes in the international system that rogue arms dealers have exploited for years. They believe they will make it harder for arms dealers like the notorious Viktor Bout, now languishing in an American jail, to do business.

Countryman said Washington’s goal was to produce a treaty that raises global arms regulations to existing US standards, but no more. A South African diplomat also said existing government regulations would be consistent with the criteria in the proposed treaty.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called SA’s support for treaty “lukewarm” and said in a statement that current South African regulations amounted only to “guidance” on assessing arms sales, “when to be effective these must have the full force of law”.

South Africa’s ambassador, though, told the conference that “the central pillar of the ATT should be premised on the requirement that prospective States Parties should establish, where they do not already exist, effective national conventional arms transfer control legislation, designated arms control systems, as well as official national administrative guidelines, national inspectorates and practical enforcement measures, including punitive measures for transgressions”.

Treaty members would have to maintain sales and import records for 20 years and publish them annually.

SA was among nations that did not want denials of sales to be reported, however, to maintain bilateral relations, a diplomat said.

For instance, if Pretoria denied a licence for arms sales to Zimbabwe because it was determined to be a rights abuser, the South African government would rather that not be known.

These annual reports would be deposited in an Implementation Support Unit, its location yet to be determined.

It is a far cry from an enforcement agency like the IAEA, but it would be the place where governments could complain about treaty violations.

Analysts say this “naming and shaming” of countries that violated the treaty was a lynch-pin of the proposed new regulatory system. But there was little in the treaty to prevent governments from falsifying their records, unless the buying nation or a third party raised objections based on their intelligence.

While 65 countries were expected to agree to a version of the treaty and approve it by the end of the month, there were several nations that remained sceptical, analysts said.

Russia, one of the world’s largest arms exporters, was one of them.

“African nations are deeply uncomfortable about revealing information about their weapons purchases,” said one analyst, who asked not to be named. But seeing the havoc that conventional arms had brought on the continent, Africans did want greater controls on their imports, he said.

Initially China was sceptical but it had come around since its African trading partners had made clear they favoured greater regulation, analysts said.

Chinese diplomats, however, were arguing that weapons given as “gifts”, presumably to help grease a commercial deal, should be allowed, they added.

Arab nations were also unenthusiastic about the treaty, particularly about the proposed criteria to deny a sales licence if corruption was involved, analysts said.

Arab governments, however, wanted denial of sales to be publicised, so that they knew who had refused to ship them weapons, a diplomat said.

Tutu made an impassioned plea for a treaty, even with limits.

“I plead with world leaders to use their common sense to make the ATT a reality,”Tutu said.

“Our common goal is clear,” added UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in his opening address to the conference. “A robust and legally binding arms trade treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence.”

“It is ambitious, but I believe it is achievable,” he said. But it will takes years to determine whether such a treaty will have the desired effect. – Independent Foreign Service