Tuesday, October 20

Up in Arms: Some Follow-up Thoughts on the Arms Trade Treaty

I spent a decent chunk of last week skirting around, hovering above and peering into the subject of calculated self-interest. While I was at it, and, perhaps because my antennae were up, I stumbled upon two articles that considered how that very idea may play out on the global stage.

The one was an article about world hunger in which the argument was advanced, with qualification, that it is ultimately in the self-interest of the developed world to combat world hunger and that this is the case that should increasingly be made to the citizens of the more developed nations because framing the fight against hunger as a social justice issue has failed, in large part, to galvanise them. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.

The other was a critical piece in Time magazine about why this was so not the year to award Obama a nobel prize. I borrow a line from that article in Time magazine by Nancy Gibbs to lead you to where I’m standing:

“peacemaking is more about ingenuity than inspiration, about reading other nations' selfish interests and cynically, strategically exploiting them for the common good.”

Calculated national self-interest then, is at the heart of every negotiation on the global stage. In diplomatic circles, it may well be considered coarse to call it what it is, but that doesn’t alter its essence.


Now that we’re here, where I’ve been standing these past few, let’s usher the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) into the room, shall we?

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying that which stubbornly defies simplification, I see three major trans-national groupings based on standing in the arms trade which then cluster somewhat differently based on their current stance toward the ATT.

Based on standing in the arms trade, those major groupings are:

• those a control arms report refers to as “the big five arms exporting countries” namely Russia, the UK, the US, France and Germany, which, per 2005 data, accounted for 82 per cent of global sales in conventional weapons;

• the emerging players in the arms export market including countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Israel, China, Brazil, Singapore and South Africa, each competing to secure a slice of the conventional arms export market and;

• the rest of the world. (Of course, in the space marked ‘the rest of the world’ it bears noting that there are currently some 92 countries producing some component or other for the small arms and light weapons industry, including my native Kenya. But the major players in the export market, which is the domain which the ATT is seeking to influence, are those outlined above.)

Clustering based on stance towards an ATT as demonstrated in how nations voted on the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution to work “toward an Arms Trade Treaty” yields a slightly different map, although most places where the boundaries fall are familiar.

There was one outright nay. There is no prize for guessing that it came from the US.

An overwhelming majority of 153 states voted in favour of the resolution, including three of the big five conventional arms exporters, namely Germany, the UK and France (indeed all of Europe excepting Russia voted in favour of the resolution), a number of the emerging exporters including South Africa, Singapore, Brazil, plus sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Caribbean, in the main.

Those who abstained included most of the middle east, some of north Africa, the Indian sub continent and Russia. Plus a few other countries whose abstention rings contrarian more than anything else, like Zimbabwe and Venezuela.                                                                  

Complexity unveiled

This is where it gets interesting. (Read: complex).

Three of the major small arms and light weapons exporters namely France, Germany and the UK stood right along some of the countries worst hit by the proliferation of illicit weapons, many of them in sub Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America in calling for work to begin towards an Arms Trade Treaty.

In fact, the UK, along with six other nations, last week presented a draft resolution to the First Committee calling for negotiations on the ATT to begin forthwith and be completed by 2012. Emerging exporters such as South Africa, Singapore and Brazil also voted in favour of the resolution.

I’m going to go out on that shaky limb and reiterate, here, that everyone brings self-interest to the table.


I’m not student of diplomacy or international relations, but as I’ve observed it, positions at the international stage are arrived at based on a sophisticated template developed and improved over time for calculating national self-interest. Nations choose from a long list of available components the exact mix of factors to combine in order to arrive at a position on either side of the aisle or to decide to sit, once in the odd while, stark in the middle.

Strategic national interests such as self-defense or the desire to position themselves as a force to reckon with may be a strong consideration. Political survival may come into play for some and not for others, and may incline some strongly one way and others strongly in the opposite direction. The national bottomline is almost always a consideration. And where there is little or no impact on it, then a nation’s self-interest may be swayed by a desire to support a key ally in the clear if unspoken expectation that when the time comes (and the time always comes), the support will be reciprocated in kind.

This is the raging whirlpool into which the ATT will be flung, the one side cheering it on, the other willing it drown and die a quick death so that life might return to an acceptable kind of normal.

So we’re at the negotiating table. We’ve acknowledged that nations bring diverse interests to the table. It’s the way of the world. How does this play out in the ATT context?
As far as I can see, the interests at the table fall in three broad categories that are complicated by an age old twist.

First up are the ‘big five’ traditional exporters of conventional weapons who still control a big chunk of the global trade in arms and come from contexts where the rules of the trade have been tightened significantly in a bid to minimise the sale of weapons to groups who would use them to violate the rights of others, such as guerilla groups and terrorist groups. 

These high standards that have been imposed either nationally or regionally have had the effect of leashing the companies operating within their borders to a standard, which has had a direct impact on these companies’ bottomlines.

At the same time as they have been subject to these internal restraints, they have watched as emerging arms exporters roam about relatively free, supplying the demand for conventional arms in the ever expanding war zones of the world with seemingly little or no thought at all as to the consequences thereof. 

Highly profitable industry

Naturally, then, the arms industries in these countries where strict rules now apply want the same stringent requirements to apply to the rest of the world so that balance may once again restored to the trade. (Read: so that they can once again secure their leading position in the highly profitable industry.)

Second are the newly emerging arms exporters. As you can imagine, new players in the export of arms would, all things being equal, be inclined to recoil against an ATT. If you view it through your pragmatic lenses, you can very well see why. The present scenario plays clearly in their favour.  

As I’ve come to understand it, manufacturing weapons is an expensive undertaking, requiring significant investment. Nations who nurture the industry for strategic national defense and security reasons, and because, in order to be a force to reckon with on the global stage you have to be a player in the war industry, soon find that, in order for such a venture to be financially feasible in the long term, they need to grow their market beyond their borders, to become arms exporters.

This leads us to the space where the arms trade debate converges with the climate change debate. The newly emerging players could well accuse the traditional players of bringing rules to the table at this specific time in history simply to rein in the emerging competition, to keep it in check.

They might argue also, that by virtue of their geography and history as well as diverse political and economic considerations, the new markets into which they can sell their arms are likely to attract more suspicion on the global stage than the more established nations into which the big five would sell their arms and that therefore they would be the bigger losers in a new stringent global ATT environment. And they might have a point.

Into these muddy the waters, toss in another twist in the form of longstanding distrust and other issues long simmering, yet unresolved. Between the west and the bulk of the middle east for example. In doing so, you may begin to despair about an ATT ever being able to swim to shore while retaining a decent amount of robustness.

Illicit trade, devastated communities and nations

But, let’s set all that aside for a minute and consider the third interest cluster comprising Africa, the Caribbean and parts of Latin American where the impact of the illicit trade in conventional weapons has been, in a word, devastating.

Long debilitating wars across the African continent from Sierra Leone to Liberia, DRC to Sudan, have been fed by a steady, unrelenting supply of illicit weapons to rebels who have wrought havoc on entire populations. The loss to lives in the past decade alone is counted in the tens of millions. And then there are those who have been wounded, those who have been bereaved, those who have been raped and otherwise violated, and those who have been brutally robbed of their livelihoods.

The internal discord and intercommunity tensions that flare up into open conflict in these war zones are often home grown, but easy access to weapons prolongs them unnecessarily and aggravates their effect multiple-fold. I need not paint a picture. You have glimpsed it over and over again.

Take the DRC for prime example, where in the last decade, 5.4 million people have lost their. Consider what havoc small arms and light weapons have wreaked there, in the brutal hands of unscrupulous gangs and militia who have little regard for human life and are only concerned with selfish personal gain.

Take Jamaica, across the world from Africa, for slightly different example, whose murder rate is 61 per 100,000. The police are fighting a losing battle there to restore the peace against heavily armed gangs who are holding the country at ransom with illicit weapons. Its proximity to the politically unstable Haiti, from whence a good proportion of its guns come, according to Novelette Grant, is the bane of its existence. But its gun trade is intricately tied also, with its drug trade, the one feeding off the other, and vice versa.

Take also my own country Kenya. According to a recent report by the BBC, rival communities in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, the epicentre of the post election violence that nigh brought the country to its knees in 2008, are rearming.

Except the word rearming doesn’t tell it quite as ominously as it is. In fact, what they’re doing, per the report, is upgrading their weapons.

Last year, the crimes were in large part committed with crude weapons: bow and arrow and machetes. This year, machine guns are all the rave.

As one man is reported to have told the BBC’s Wanyama wa Chebusiri:
"Before we were using bows and arrows to fight the enemy but changed to guns following the post-election experience because we realised, compared to guns, the arrows were child's play."
Supply is high, the article says, and the price is low.

In his brief address at the launch of Oxfam’s Dying for Action report just over a week ago, Mutuku Nguli, CEO of Peacenet, a Kenyan grassroots organisation, tagged the price of an AK-47 in the Rift Valley at a very accessible $230.

Why is supply high?

Partly because Kenya’s borders are porous and controls are weak. If people with criminal intent want to smuggle weapons into our country, they likely can and they likely will.
Partly, also, because neighbouring states such as Somalia are unstable. Weapons are getting from there into Kenya even though there’s a UN embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to various warlords and warring clans in Somalia.

To hear it from the horse's mouth, in this case Florella Hazelely, an activist with the Sierra Leone Action Network in Small arms, as she is quoted in the Control Arms report, Arms Without Borders,

“We don’t manufacture these guns, yet they end up in our country, erode our security and have terrible consequences for our development.”

Human imperative

This is nothing short of a gross injustice on a global scale. It will not do.

But, before I climb onto my soapbox, allow me to make a comment about the US position.

Per intelligence I’ve gathered, the US’ reluctance to wholly embrace an ATT is not so much driven by economic considerations as by strategic ones. US arms sales have historically been closely aligned with its national strategic interests and its foreign policy objectives. Consider for example how it recently supplied 40 tons of weapons to the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia in a noble bid to strengthen it against increasing attacks from militia groups in the country. 

Now, you’ve probably read that there’s a brisk arms trade in Somalia, complete with a specialised market where guns can be bought off the shelf or ordered in bulk. It’s a lucrative business, is what it is, and if you’ve got money in your pocket, it’s as good as a gun in your hand.
I read, also, that some of the weapons supplied by the US to the Somalia TFG found their way to this market through unscrupulous means. It is not inconceivable, then, that some of the weapons on sale in Kenya’s rift valley may be these very weapons, supplied by the US to a legitimate government in Somalia.

In its brief address to the First Committee, week before last, the US insisted that no nation had done more than it had done to stem illicit trade in weapons. I have no reason to dispute this. But, by the brief illustration above I mean to advance the argument that more is needed than a unilateral effort—a comprehensive global standard is necessary.

Which is what brings me full circle, to that thing I was going on about, about the world really needing an Arms Trade Treaty. (Or hadn’t I gotten to that already?)
Well then, climbing atop my soapbox now, thanks much.

As the negotiations for an Arms Trade Treaty begin, it is clear, nay inevitable, that there will be posturing.

The stakes, after all, are extremely high. There are national strategic interests on the line. And national bottomlines as well. There’s prestige, also. And ego. Not to mention old scores yet unsettled.

But over and well above all this, there are human lives at stake, and human lives are the highest stake of all.

There is, as Debbie Hiller of Oxfam International so compellingly put it, “a humanitarian imperative,” and that red card, legitimately pulled out of whatever back pocket, silences all other considerations except those equal to it.

So if the way you calculate your self-interest yields a negative value in the event that an ATT comes into force, while I sympathise with you, I urge you to consider the humanitarian imperative. For those who had rather say no and who, in glancing across the aisle, have just cause to call into question the underlying motives of some of the aye-sayers, I should like to sympathise, but I’m compelled by a humanitarian imperative.

Oxfam International and the Control Arms coalition have put a number tag on that humanitarian imperative: 2,000 people. Every day. Meet their death through small arms and light weapons. 2,000 people.

It will not, it cannot, it must not do that in some lofty political somewhere, old bulls and new bulls lock horns in a power struggle while 2,000 innocent people lose their lives every day.

Do we need a global, legally binding treaty to minimize the extent to which small arms and light weapons are used to fuel conflict and human rights abuses?



Anonymous said...

what an amazing analysis of the twisted double think that goes on with our arms traders. I cant beleieve that we still think that humans are worth less than guns. Every human, every single one, is worth more than a bullet. the suffering this terrible trade causes right across the world is just so horrifying.Truly I am ashamed to belong to a country that manufactures and exports weapons to anyone with the money to buy them.thank you all those who are campaigning for this treaty.

Rebecca Opetsi said...

Hey Gal,
this is beautiful