Friday, July 08, 2005

Staring Down the Barrel

Arms control is a life-or-death matter for millions of people in developing countries.

Arms control is a life-or-death matter for millions of people in developing countries.

The Age -- As George Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and the other G8 leaders discuss the world’s problems at their luxurious Gleneagles hotel, Africa’s death dealers are hawking their wares in open-air markets.

In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, at least four gun markets operate where Russianmade AK-47 assault rifles, American M16s and German semi-automatics are sold for less than $250. Not far from the markets, mortars, missiles and anti-aircraft guns can be tested. If you like, you buy. No questions asked.

Once the deal is done, the weapons — many of which were initially ordered by African governments for “legitimate” security purposes — are packed into light aircraft or dusty trucks and transported across borders.

Then they are dispersed to tribal warlords, thugs in the pay of corrupt politicians, double-dealing police, drug dealers and to the tens of thousands of child soldiers roaming Africa. The result is more death and misery for the people who can least afford it.

An estimated 500,000 people in developing countries are killed each year from small arms or light weapons fire.

And though shadowy, well-connected arms brokers play a part in getting black market weapons to their destination, it is the G8 nations that are overwhelmingly supplying the developing world with the tools for people to kill each other.

Why? Because the global arms trade is a lucrative business — and politically unstable, developing nations are good customers. In 2002, deliveries to developing nations in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America constituted more than 66 per cent of the world’s arms trade.

Take a few recent deals: Russia has sold combat aircraft and attack helicopters to Algeria, Iran and Ethiopia. Russian M-17 helicopters and 74 missile launchers have gone to India. The United States has sold F- 16 fighters, 40 Bell helicopters and 2000 missiles to India’s nuclear rival Pakistan, helping fuel a regional arms race as tension over the disputed Kashmir territory continues.

Forty Canadian CH-135 helicopters sold to the US have been onsold to Colombia, a country with human rights problems.

France and Germany have both exported arms to countries, such as Burma and the Sudan, that are subject to European Union arms embargoes.

So as the leaders consider freeing up trade restrictions as a means of increasing prosperity in Africa, there is already one trade where the rich are happy to trade with the poor.

Six of the G8 countries — the US, UK, France, Russia, Germany and Italy — lead the world’s top 10 arms suppliers. Canada and Japan also play a significant role in a trade where G8 nations exported $15 billion of arms to the developing world in 2003.

A report released by development agencies last month found the G8 countries were responsible for 84 per cent of global arms exports.

The report, prepared by the International Action Network on Small Arms, Oxfam and Amnesty International, found the G8 nations had acted irresponsibly by suppling arms to countries that violated human rights, starved their people and sought war with their neighbours.

“The cost in lives, lost livelihoods and lost opportunities to escape poverty is incalculable,” the report concluded. “G8 governments have left significant loopholes in their own arms export standards and control mechanisms. Their efforts to control arms exports are not in proportion to the G8’s global responsibility.”

Britain is trying to put the issue of arms trade to the developing world on the table at the Gleneagles summit, proposing the G8 sign a legally binding international arms trade treaty.

This treaty, supported by the African Union and the United Nations, would close loopholes that allow G8 countries, manufacturers and arms brokers to supply weapons to countries subject to governments and regimes that violate human rights.

But if reports emerging from the summit yesterday are true, then the slaughter of huge numbers of innocent people in the developing world with weapons manufactured by G8 countries looks set to continue.

The leaders might not even discuss arms trade because Russia, according to London’s Independent newspaper, has signalled its intention to block any attempt to have a firm commitment to any treaty from being included in the summit’s declaration.

Oxfam’s head of advocacy, Jo Leadbeater, yesterday said whatever pledges the G8 leaders made on fighting poverty would be undermined if they did not act to regulate the arms trade.

“Arms control is a life-or-death matter for millions of people in such developing countries and the G8 leaders must treat it as such,” he said.

“The G8 leaders must call for a legally binding arms trade treaty, which includes all conventional weapons. Anything less might salve the G8’s consciences, but it will not save lives.”

The amount many poor nations spend on arming themselves is staggering. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the debts owed by the world’s poorest countries stem from past arms sales from G8 nations.

A 2004 report by the Control Arms Campaign found that in dozens of developing countries, governments spend more on the military than on health, infrastructure and social development combined.

It concluded Oman, Syria, Burma, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Burundi spent more on the military than on health and education combined. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran, China, Rwanda, Angola, Ethiopia and Nigeria are just some of the nations that spend more on defence than health.

In rich Western countries, military spending is up to 25 times higher than funding for overseas aid, according to UN figures to be released in a report later this year.

In a letter to London’s The Times newspaper this week, former Costa Rican president and Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias articulated how easily arms can be trafficked and why an international arms treaty was urgently required.

“In a clean, well-lit office, a mid-level official authorises an arms export licence for a national producer. Under it, the producer sends a shipment of M16 assault rifles to an allied national seeking to increase border security,” Arias wrote.

“At night, those weapons are loaded on to an unmarked plane destined for a territory under UN arms embargo. Some will be for a dictator’s army, others for child soldiers in the jungle; some will fall into the hands of drug traffickers or bring a bloody close to a domestic quarrel.

“National and regional arms trafficking laws cannot match the scope of the larger problem. A global, legally binding treaty is essential if the international community is to control conventional weapons proliferation over the long term.

“By holding all countries responsible to a set of minimum standards, the treaty would eliminate the common excuse of arms exporting countries that if they don’t sell the weapons to a questionable recipient, someone else will.”

Arias wrote that establishing such a treaty would require courage and perseverance, as some of the world’s most-powerful interest groups would oppose any moves to restrict global arms trade.

In 2001, the Bush Administration blocked a UN attempt to regulate the arms trade, fearing a backlash from America’s conservative and powerful gun lobby.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan believes peace, democracy and security for millions of impoverished people won’t be achieved unless action is taken to curb arms trading in the developing world.

“Small arms and light weapons are primary tools of violence in many conflicts taking place in the world,” Annan said recently.

“Our larger efforts to promote peace and security — whether through conflict prevention, development, diplomacy or, when necessary, intervention — depend to a great extent on how we tackle the smaller, more specific challenges of limiting tools of war and violence.”


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