Guardian, Comment Is Free, September 14 2006

September 14, 2006

Caught in the crossfire

The arms trade has caused the deaths of millions of civilians – we need to bring it within the framework of international law.

“It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like,” my sister Charlotte was told, shortly before being gunned down by members of the Forces pour la Liberation Nationale (FNL) armed group in war-torn Burundi. The UK post-mortem found that she had been shot seven times in the back with an eastern European semi-automatic rifle. Her killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag peasant army, but they knew where the guns were coming from.

In the five years since, I’ve been haunted by the idea that the man who sold them those guns might be walking the same streets as me here in London, drinking in the same pubs, and catching the same tube trains. While the violence ravaging Central Africa might seem distant and unreal, it begins here, in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made, and many of those brokering the sales are British or Britain-based.

Charlotte was one of 21 people murdered when a bus, the inauspiciously-named “Titanic Express”, was ambushed close to the Burundian capital in December 2000. It was one among hundreds of similar attacks. Bullets recovered from the notorious August 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre – in which more than 150 Congolese Tutsis died – have been traced to as far afield as Bulgaria, Serbia and China.

More than 300,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in Burundi’s bloody conflict since 1993. In the wider region – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the death toll runs into the millions. The financial cost, too, is devastating. Across Africa, $15bn is lost every year through the impact of war, cruelly undermining prospects for economic development. Poverty, inter-ethnic rivalries, and a culture of impunity all play a part in fuelling the violence. But without the ready and abundant supply of guns and ammunition, these conflicts would be far less deadly.

Each year, arms manufacturers produce enough bullets to kill every man, woman and child on the planet, twice. Each day, 1,000 more people die through gun violence, most of them civilians like Charlotte. The world over, armed groups exploit the easy availability of guns to wage war against governments and against each other, catching civilian populations in the crossfire. Yet there are no internationally agreed standards regulating small arms sales.

As a result, the arms trade is out of control. Most of the suffering is in the developing world; while most of the profits are here in the west. But neither are we in the west immune, as my family knows all too well. Britons, being global travellers, are at risk from the global flood of guns. And the sheer volume of guns and bullets being manufactured means some inevitably find their way into the hands of criminals and terrorists in the UK. It’s in all of our interests to get the small arms trade under control.

Three years ago, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the Control Arms campaign for the creation of an international arms trade treaty (ATT). The principle is simple: no transfers of guns, bullets, grenades or mortars should be allowed to places where they are likely be used in human rights abuses against civilians. Countries that sign the treaty will be agreeing to place strict limits on the movement of weapons from and through their territories.

The idea has won support from governments around the world, with Britain in the lead. More than a million people in 140 countries have joined the Million Faces petition online, and yesterday we held a global day of action for the arms trade treaty. Next month the UN general assembly will consider whether to begin the process of developing the ATT.

Yet despite this momentum there are signs of backsliding. An international meeting today will discuss the resolution on the ATT, which the UK is promoting for the general assembly. However, that resolution fails to mention human rights, which should be the central principle of the ATT.

Today’s meeting at the Foreign Office will be a major opportunity to get things back on track. In the name of my sister and those who died with her, I hope that we grasp it. We will not make poverty history, nor be sure of our own security, until this bloody trade is brought within the framework of international law.

Click here to sign the Control Arms campaign’s Million Faces Petition

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One Response to “Guardian, Comment Is Free, September 14 2006”

  1. Desire-Joseph Katihabwa Says:

    Strong measures have to be brought in to control illegal Arms trade. I congratulate the investigation that led to track some of these illegal Arms traders,where I come from,Burundi,the Government should work closely with UK Government to look at ways to deal with investigating who sells weapon to the Public.


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