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Analysis
Last Updated: 06/02/2009
International Cooperation to Control the Intergovernmental Small Arms Trade: Case Study China-Sudan
Tara Ruttenberg

After outlining the deadly scope of today’s small arms trade, this paper touches on questions of international law and responsibility, or lack thereof, as illustrated by the legal intergovernmental transfer of arms from China to the Sudan, despite international pressure urging the contrary. References include United Nations documents, task force and international NGO campaign reports, contemporary media coverage and University for Peace lecture discussions.


Introduction

Legal small arms imports and illicit supplies “fuel grave human rights abuses” among FARC and ELN rebels, paramilitaries and state security forces in Colombia; Rearmament  on all sides of conflict stymies possible benefits of a UN arms embargo in Cote d’Ivoire; A long history of armed conflict and rising violent crime in Guatemala linked to the arms trade; Overt and clandestine arms provisions to Somalia “worsen a human rights catastrophe”; protestors massacred with arms supplied to Guinea in years prior to their use; US, UK and NATO military sales “worsening the carnage and despair” in an increasingly armed Iraq; arms transfers abused and misused in repressive Myanmar; the intensification of a borderline genocide fiasco resulting from the continuous inflow of small arms directly—and indirectly by way of neighboring Chad—into Sudan by both transparent and illegal means.[1] International news sources need only look to the world’s most violent conflict zones to be constantly equipped with an array of disturbing headlines directly related to flagrant international human rights’ violations exacerbated by the flourishing global arms trade. 

As the international community struggles to respond to the human rights crises associated with the globalized trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW), cooperation efforts have done little to curb the harmful implications of the legal and illegal transfer of arms to conflict-ridden areas of the world, where profit-seeking business endeavors seem to trump ethical social responsibility. “According to the Congressional Research Service, the value of all arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2005 was approaching $45 billion, with the sales to the developing world accounting for two thirds of that total.”[2] Among government militaries, armed militias and rebel guerrillas in countries wrought with civil war, destroyed by humanitarian disasters and plagued by factionalist infighting, the demand for weapon provisions is constantly on the rise, with a high price to be paid to those willing to provide the supply. Academicians, ambassadors, human rights’ activists and politicians from all corners of the world condemn the “irresponsible” arms trade that continues to provide governments and non-state armed groups with a plethora of SALWs at the snap of a finger, many times in outright disregard for UN and regional sanctions prohibiting their dissemination.

How has the international community attempted to respond to such a widespread threat to international peace and human rights? What are the fundamental obstacles to restricting the arms trade to prevent the proliferation of SALWs in conflicts under scrutiny for human rights violations? How can governments and international organizations cooperate to promote a regulated, responsible and legal global arms trade? This paper touches on these questions as it analyzes the main challenges associated with the small arms trade, particularly as it relates to the legal intergovernmental transfer of arms, highlighting the case study of China’s continued supply of arms to human rights’ hotbed, Sudan, despite international pressure urging the contrary. References include United Nations documents, task force and international NGO campaign reports, contemporary media coverage and University for Peace lecture discussions. As human rights crises rage on from Colombia and Guatemala to Sudan, DR Congo, Somalia, Myanmar and dozens of conflict zones in between, regulating the legal arms trade has become a hot policy topic in national governments, among peace advocating international NGOs and within the UN system. Despite their efforts and minimal progress, a key challenge remains: Is the international community ready and willing to commit to such an ethical task when there are billions to be made in defecting? At the start of the twenty-first century, the answer remains dubious at best.

Controlling the Intergovernmental SALW Trade

For our purposes of analyzing international cooperation on controlling interstate arms transfers and given the limited scope of this topic, the illicit non-governmental trade in SALW, arguably one of the most dangerous threats facing our global humanity today, will not be treated here. However, it is significant to mention that the illicit trade by private individuals and groups acting outside state control is a worrisome outcome of the versatility of today’s globalized economy such that these non-state actors may provide arms to belligerents despite international sanctions or other mechanisms to control the arms trade. In this way, we must recognize the illicit arms trade as a force to be reckoned with alongside efforts to control the legal intergovernmental trade in SALW, as it exacerbates the already challenging aim of regulating the interstate transfer of arms to conflict zones ripe with human rights violations.[3]

With the end of the Cold War, new global challenges emerged with the rise of grave human rights’ concerns in Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo, to mention a few. As the superpower nuclear threat gave way to intra-state conflict in cases of genocide and human rights’ violations, the need to regulate the small arms trade resurfaced as a key priority on the international policy agenda. The mid-1990s saw the resurgence of the same preliminary attempts of the old League of Nations days to regulate international arms transfers through a process of registering who is trading with whom on the intergovernmental level.[4] From its inception this idea lacked overarching support and was buried by the outbreak of World War II and the ensuing global Cold War environment primarily concerned with the threat of nuclear weapons as opposed to regulating the trade in small arms. Although the advancement of economic globalization and its dizzying implications for the SALW trade have created a much different world than that of the inter-World War period, international cooperation on this issue continues to target the same general aim of creating an environment of governmental responsibility, accountability and transparency through regulation, registration and monitoring of the international SALW trade. Within the past decade, cooperative efforts on the national, intergovernmental, international NGO and United Nations levels have established overarching campaigns in attempts to prevent the transfer of arms to governments implicated in grave human rights’ violations.

A principal outcome of 1990s international cooperation on arms control was the development in 2005 of a draft Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), “drawing on the principles of the 1997 Nobel Peace Laureates’ International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers proposed by Dr. Oscar Arias and a group of seven other laureates… an effort to codify states’ existing responsibilities under international law and [provide] an operative mechanism for their application to the arms trade.”[5] The Code of Conduct and the ATT relate specifically to the legal intergovernmental arms trade, calling on governments to exercise ethical responsibility and recognize their role in condemning human rights’ abuses by restricting arms transfers to governments in violation of international law, particularly human rights abuses. In 1997, the Code of Conduct called for “a ban on transfers of weapons or military technology to governments that violently repress fundamental democratic rights, are guilty of gross violations of human rights, or commit acts of armed international aggression.”[6] In 2005, with the hopes of becoming a binding, universal and comprehensive treaty, the draft ATT adopted and expanded this ban to encompass the single principle of “No more weapons for violations of international law.”[7] At the time of its creation, the ATT Steering Committee members included: the African Peace Forum, Amnesty International, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, Caritas International, Friends Committee on National Legislation (USA), International Action Network on Small Arms, Non Violence International, Oxfam, Project Ploughshares (Canada), Saferworld (UK), Albert Schweitzer Institute (USA), Sou de Paz (Brazil), Viva Rio (Brazil), and the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (Trinidad and Tobago).

As international NGOs lead the cooperative campaign urging the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate and restrict the legal intergovernmental transfer of SALW, the United Nations system has responded quite favorably with a landmark First Committee of the UN General Assembly vote in 2006 to move forward on the process of creating a comprehensive ATT within the UN body.  Passing with a margin of 139 to 1 (24 abstentions and the United States the only vote in opposition), this vote “paved the way for a feasibility report by the Secretary General and the establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts to consider the scope and content of the Treaty.”[8] In this case, we may consider the proactive response of the UN to move forward on creating a comprehensive ATT a major success of the international NGO cooperation between those organizations mentioned above in influencing the international UN policy agenda.

As the ATT process trudges along in the General Assembly as an overarching attempt to regulate the global intergovernmental arms trade, the role of the UN Security Council in this matter has taken on a much more specific, ad hoc character in its efforts to prevent the governmental dissemination of arms to states implicated in human rights violations. In the majority of cases, sanctions and embargoes have become the standard practice in Security Council responses to governments under scrutiny for human rights’ abuses. This has been the case most recently in Sudan, DR Congo, Myanmar and Somalia, where the Security Council has voted to condemn through sanctions the sale or transfer of arms to the governments of these countries. Although a majority of UN member nations have heeded UN sanctions prohibiting arms provision to these states’ governments, defection on the part of a limited number of governments within the international community has weakened their capacity to put real pressure on the governments in question to change their inhumane policies and put an end to human rights’ violations. A devastating result of this practice of arms sanction defection is the perpetuation of violent intrastate conflict characterized by gross human rights violations at the hands of the official state military apparatus, rebel groups and hired militias. The following section examines this phenomenon in the case study of China’s ongoing provision of arms to the Sudanese government in disregard of UN sanctions against it.

China-Sudan Arms Trade

Darfur, Sudan, one of the world’s most talked-about intrastate conflicts in the international media, among members of the UN system and within the scope of international human rights’ NGOs, is an illustrative example of the ways in which sovereign states may thwart international cooperation on efforts aiming to end human rights’ violations through restricting the arms trade. In the case of the Sudan, where 300,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed and 2.5 million displaced, the Chinese government is under international scrutiny for continuing to provide the Sudanese government with SALW and military transport vehicles despite a UN Security Council embargo forbidding the transfer of arms to the Darfur region since 2004.[9]

Security Council Resolution 1591 (2005) bans the transfer of arms to all parties to the Darfur conflict: “All States shall take the necessary measures to prevent the supply of arms and related materiel of all types and also of technical training and assistance to the following actors operating in the states of North Darfur, South Darfur, and West Darfur: all non-governmental entities and individuals, including the Janjaweed; all parties to the N’djamena Ceasefire Agreement; any other belligerents.”[10] Within the international community, there is very little doubt that the Sudanese government continues to play an active, if not entirely protagonist role in the Darfur conflict and its heavy list of human rights violations (see official and unofficial reports on the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the ICC prosecutor). In this light, governments and international NGOs have cast blame on the Chinese government for its ongoing arms provisions to the Sudanese government in disregard for the Security Council arms embargo.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, claims that it has not acted in breach of the embargo on the grounds that arms sales to Sudan support the self-defense of the Sudanese government, who it denies as a perpetrator of human rights violations in Darfur. China’s “arms sales exploit a gray area in the resolution, which may technically allow the government to buy weapons as long as they are not used in Darfur.”[11] However, international rights groups in particular have reported on the link between Chinese arms provisions to the Sudanese government and their subsequent use in Darfur. According to a 2007 report by Amnesty International, “Sudan had transferred six K-8 attack aircraft recently acquired from China to Darfur in breach of the ban...[noting that] Khartoum was expecting six more....In 2005, the year a United Nations resolution banned the transfer of weapons to all parties in Darfur, China supplied $24 million in arms and $57 million in aircraft equipment.” [12] Through this type of ‘gray-area’ arms provisions that may or may not be in breach of the Security Council embargo depending on differing interpretations of its terms, China has successfully undermined international arms control efforts attempting to put an end to one of the most troublesome human rights crises in contemporary history.

Cooperative international efforts within the INGO, intergovernmental and UN spheres have responded to the China-Sudan arms trade in two significant ways: a) recommendations by the US, European Union and Security Council Committee on Sudan to strengthen and expand the current arms embargo; and b) international media and public opinion pressure through a successful awareness movement led by the Control Arms Campaign. On the international elite level, the US, EU and Security Council Subcommittee for Sudan are in the process of coordinating efforts to strengthen and expand the jurisdiction of the UN Security Council arms embargo. The US and EU are leading the campaign to induce other Security Council members to threaten or invoke sanctions on governments who do not comply with the Sudan arms trade embargo. In a recent report, the Security Council Subcommittee has recommended the expansion of the current embargo to include arms transfers to Chad and possibly, Libya. These measures respond both to China’s arms sale to Sudan and the reality that despite the embargo, SALW are leaking into Sudan by way of the Chad and Libyan borders. Although progressive by Security Council standards, these collaborative efforts remain in the planning stages, lacking overarching support from the Security Council with the impending threat of a veto exercised by China and/or Russia.

Through the publication and dissemination of official reports, observer testimonies and press releases, the Control Arms Campaign has made significant headway in its efforts to stimulate international awareness of the link between China’s arms trade with Sudan and the human rights crisis in Darfur. Comprised of three leading international human rights NGO’s, Amnesty International, Oxfam and International Action Network on Small Arms, the Control Arms Campaign has been highly successful in influencing public opinion as well as national and international policy agendas to regulate the intergovernmental arms trade in general, and the China-Sudan trade in particular.

As media outlets and grassroots campaigns vociferously respond to reports such as Amnesty’s “Blood at the Crossroads,” a detailed compilation of the connections between the SALW trade and the world’s most perilous human rights’ crises, it is becoming increasingly impossible for governments to ignore their role in the perpetuation of human rights’ violations through questionably legal intergovernmental arms transfers. As awareness increases on the popular and elite levels, some journalists point to its effect on the arms providers themselves, in this case China. An Economist special report notes, “China has [...] changed its stance on Sudan as international outrage about events in Darfur has grown and activists have branded the Beijing games as ’the genocide Olympics‘. Last year China helped to persuade Sudan to admit UN peacekeepers—a move it had long resisted, with China's blessing. China has even sent troops of its own to join the UN force.”[13] As UN sanctions and embargoes may prove weak in their capacity to influence states’ behavior in regard to the sale of arms irrespective of human rights, international pressure through cooperative awareness campaigns may be a way forward in prompting governments like China’s to reevaluate their role as arms providers in conflicts wrought with human rights violations.

Conclusion

With the end of the Cold War, the international community has been forced to respond to the perilous threat of the small arms trade, illicit and intergovernmental, strengthening and perpetuating human rights violations at the hands of state-sponsored militaries, rebel armies, paramilitaries and armed militias. With a throwback to early League of Nations attempts to regulate the arms trade, international efforts in the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century have focused on the preliminary creation of a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty to incite a “responsible” and ethical intergovernmental arms trade, holding states responsible for the effects of arms transfers to conflict zones throughout the world. As the China-Sudan case illustrates, one state’s defection is sufficient to thwart otherwise cooperative international efforts to restrict the transfer of SALW to governments implicated in conflicts of gross human rights violations. In debatable infringement of the Security Council arms embargo, China’s provision of arms to Sudan is one of the many confirmations in the world today that “many countries continue to give priority to profits in the lucrative weapons market over respect for human rights and human security.” [14] As the UN system, state governments and international NGOs put pressure on governments like China’s to conform to “responsible” practices within the framework of the legal arms trade, cooperative awareness movements such as the Control Arms Campaign have proven mildly successful in influencing state behavior, especially when actions by the Security Council are rendered ineffective when threatened with the use of the veto.  

When assessing international cooperation on controlling the small arms trade, we must remember that today’s China may easily be yesterday’s US government in the Iran Contra affair or more recently in the Colombian conflict with the FARC and ELN rebel groups. The international community may point fingers at different countries on different days depending on the human rights crisis under review, and many states condemning China’s provision of arms to Sudan can be criticized for similar behavior elsewhere in their not-so-distant past and present. In this light, the widespread lack of ethical “responsibility” on the part of governments to restrict the transfer of arms to human rights hotbeds goes much deeper than the case-by-case tactics currently practiced by the United Nations and international NGOs. This global phenomenon points to the reality that in order to control the intergovernmental arms trade, a comprehensive and binding Arms Trade Treaty accepted and adopted by the entire international community may be our only hope.

But in a world where profit maximization trumps reverence for human rights, this hope gleams dim for even the most optimistic of University for Peace idealists.

Works Cited

Amnesty International statistics, cited in Farley, Maggie. “China, Russia faulted for Sudan arms sales.” Los Angeles Times Archive for Wednesday, May 09, 2007 in print edition A-4 http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/09/world/fg-sudan9

Arms Trade Treaty: No More Arms for Atrocities. Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. First Edition. San Jose, Costa Rica: Arias Foundation for Human Progress, 2005

Blood at the Crossroads: Making the case for a global Arms Trade Treaty,” report published by Amnesty International. London, UK, 2008. 

“CHINA'S QUEST FOR RESOURCES: No Strings, Why Developing Countries Like Doing Business with China” Economist Print Edition, www.economist.com, March 13, 2008. 

Farley, Maggie. “China, Russia faulted for Sudan arms sales.” Los Angeles Times Archive for Wednesday, May 09, 2007 in print edition A-4 http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/09/world/fg-sudan9

Kytomaki, Elli and Valerie Yankey-Wayne, Implementing the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons: Analysis of the Reports Submitted by States in 2003, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs Small Arms Survey.

Mitchell, Christopher. Class discussion on controlling the arms trade. Course IPS-6017: International Cooperation and Peace Building, University for Peace of Costa Rica. December 16, 2008.

Stedjan, Scott. “Arms Trade Treaty: Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Editor Miriam Pemberton, IPS. http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3735. November 9, 2006.

United Nations statistics, www.UN.org.

United Nations Security Council Committee on the Sudan. http://www.un.org/sc/committee


[1]“Blood at the Crossroads: Making the case for a global Arms Trade Treaty,” report published by Amnesty International. London, UK, 2008.

[2] From Stedjan, Scott. “Arms Trade Treaty: Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Editor Miriam Pemberton, IPS. November 9, 2006.

[3] For detailed information on the ways in which the international community has coordinated its attempts to control the illicit arms trade, a good source is the UN report, Implementing the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons: Analysis of the Reports Submitted by States in 2003, compiled by Elli Kytomaki and Valerie Yankey-Wayne in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs Small Arms Survey.

[4] Mitchell, Christopher. Class discussion on controlling the arms trade. Course IPS-6017: International Cooperation and Peace Building, University for Peace of Costa Rica. December 16, 2008.

[5] Arms Trade Treaty: No More Arms for Atrocities. Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. First Edition. San Jose, Costa Rica: Arias Foundation for Human Progress, 2005. Reverse cover page. The seven other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates mentioned include: His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Donald Gann (American Friends Service Committee), Gururaj Mutalik (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War), Jose Ramos-Horta, Susan Waltz (Amnesty International), Elie Wiesel, and Betty Williams.

[6] Arms Trade Treaty: No More Arms for Atrocities. Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. First Edition. San Jose, Costa Rica: Arias Foundation for Human Progress, 2005 p. V

[7] Arms Trade Treaty: No More Arms for Atrocities. Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. First Edition. San Jose, Costa Rica: Arias Foundation for Human Progress, 2005. P. V

[8] Stedjan, Scott. “Arms Trade Treaty: Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Editor Miriam Pemberton, IPS. November 9, 2006. Stedjan writes, “Given the Bush administration's aversion to global treaties of any sort, it is not surprising that the only vote in opposition to the resolution was the United States,” arguing that it may be best for international cooperation efforts on the ATT that the US does not sign on at this early stage to avoid detrimental changes to the substance of the Treaty that could very well result from the US pushing its international policy agenda and counterterrorism focus into the content of the agreement. Stedjan’s reservation centers on the following: given the “Bush administration’s vehement opposition to international norms limiting U.S. war-fighting capabilities… I highly doubt that an arms trade treaty developed with the support of the U.S. would set high humanitarian standards.”

[9] United Nations statistics, www.UN.org.

[10] United Nations Security Council Committee on the Sudan. http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1591/index.shtml

[11] Farley, Maggie. “China, Russia faulted for Sudan arms sales.” Los Angeles Times Archive for Wednesday, May 09, 2007 in print edition A-4 http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/09/world/fg-sudan9

[12] Amnesty International statistics, cited in Farley, Maggie. “China, Russia faulted for Sudan arms sales.” Los Angeles Times Archive for Wednesday, May 09, 2007 in print edition A-4 http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/09/world/fg-sudan9

[13] “CHINA'S QUEST FOR RESOURCES: No Strings, Why Developing Countries Like Doing Business with China” Economist Print Edition, www.economist.com, March 13, 2008.

[14] Stedjan, Scott. “Arms Trade Treaty: Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Editor Miriam Pemberton, IPS. November 9, 2006.

Tara Ruttenberg is a master's degree candidate in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.
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