Making the Arms Trade Treaty Work in Practice is the Real Challenge for Africa

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Reform of Guinea-Bissau’s military at the crossroads
Reform of Guinea-Bissau’s military at the crossroads. Photo: Africa Renewal/flickr.

An outcome that does not make everyone happy is the hallmark of a successful negotiation process, to paraphrase Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, president of the United Nations’ Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). He and his team certainly achieved that goal. Most states and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) agree that the treaty text does not meet the expectations that were created over the past two decades. However, mitigating this situation is the belief that six years after the ATT has come into force, states will be able to make amendments to strengthen the treaty. Whether this is viable is a question for another day.

The immediate future of the ATT, in the case of Africa, is to find answers to the question on implementation. Each African state will have to evaluate what resources it has available and then determine what resources are needed to implement the treaty. Several states have been developing capacity on reporting on other treaties and instruments such as the United Nations Programme of Action (UNPoA) and the International Tracing Instrument. These instruments impact on different areas of conventional arms, and small arms and light weapons.

With the adoption of the ATT on 2 April 2013 through a vote in the General Assembly, all of the reporting requirements as contained in the ATT and other arms control instruments will have to be consolidated into one reporting entity, perhaps in the form of a secretariat, to manage the workload. This entity will place an additional burden on states, but that might be offset by the value it will add in terms of keeping reporting records and the associated data up to date. This could release officials otherwise engaged with the struggle to obtain and verify data and write the relevant report when the numerous reporting deadlines approach.

By facing the ATT and its requirements head-on and consolidating the reporting requirements of the different instruments into one reporting structure, the burden of reporting might be reduced and the flow of information increased. This is a logical solution to the challenge posed by reporting, but the different departments tasked with managing the reporting of individual instruments may not easily accept it. The status quo will have to be challenged and the practicality of a consolidated secretariat will have to be proven in years to come.

The biggest challenge that African states face in order to implement the ATT will probably be from within their own ranks. This is the result of minimal resources to monitor illegal border crossings used in the arms trade, and an environment fraught with corruption and criminality. It is one of the major stumbling blocks for all African states; not an insurmountable challenge, but one that requires integrity and continuous effort from all.

Most African countries do not have weapons or ammunition manufacturing capabilities and few have the desire to export the arms and ammunition that they do manufacture. Despite this, these countries will most probably bear the brunt of the ATT. Corruption, greed, violence and human rights violations are rife throughout Africa and the amalgamation of these circumstances have created an ideal environment for unscrupulous arms traffickers and illicit suppliers of arms to ply their trade.

The implications of ratifying the ATT will be enormous for under-staffed and technically decrepit states. The current status quo will have to change, states will have to ensure that their officials do not accept bribes to provide false documentation, and officials cannot be allowed to even consider ‘looking the other way’ when an arms shipment is received without all the correct documentation. This new concept must be embraced by all departments and political leaders involved in any way with border control and the import and export of goods.

Thus, for Africa, this treaty means that the international community recognises that there is an external threat to its safety and security. The threat is related to the arms trade in general. The international community pledges that it will maintain better control over the firearms manufactured within the various sovereignties and that it will take measures to prevent the weapons that are manufactured from being diverted to unintended users. However, it also means that African states will have to step up and participate in the process to monitor and evaluate the arms trade. In addition, African states will have to clean up their reputation for human rights violations or they themselves will be prevented from importing arms and ammunition.

Although African governments might find the requirements cumbersome and tedious, for the people of Africa it means that there is a light at the end of the long, dark conflict tunnel. The positive effects of the ATT might not immediately be apparent, but the negative effects will manifest themselves. Unscrupulous arms dealers will be jockeying to off-load their stockpiled hardware before industrious countries start to look critically at all the shipments that reach and depart from their shores.

Thus a flurry of activity can be expected on the illicit arms trade market during the next six years, with many older redundant arms and weapons systems being offloaded at bargain prices to anyone willing to pay.

This is therefore an opportune moment for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to start monitoring areas such as money laundering, illicit money transfers, the transfers of actual weapons, and smaller areas of interest. Some of the indicators may be increased activity to obtain false documentation such as company registration documentation, shipping manifests that do not reflect the content of the shipment, false end-user certificates and false identification documents for travelling to and from countries to engage in the illicit arms trade.

Armed conflict might intensify as prospective dictators and freedom fighters realise that their access to arms and ammunition will soon be cut off. The stockpiling of major arms and ammunition is likely to occur, to try and mitigate the effects of the treaty once it comes into force. These circumstances may culminate in a ‘perfect storm’ of conflict and instability for the next decade.

Hopefully the international community will be forthcoming and expedient with international aid to states with limited resources, as promised and entrenched in the treaty. If not, the ATT might have exactly the opposite effect of that which was intended with its creation, at least in the short term.

This is a cross-post from the ISS Africa

Ben Coetzee, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

The Lessons and Limits of DDR in Africa

Priorities for African States Negotiating for an Arms Trade Treaty

Security Provision and Small Arms in Karamoja

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch

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