One death a minute: toll of the booming arms trade

By Cahal Milmo (Independent, 10 October 2003)


In Somalia, babies are named "Uzi" and "AK" after their fathers' favourite assault rifles. In Georgia, arms are so common that English teachers have been paid in hand grenades. In Yemen, the birth of a boy is greeted by tribal leaders with shouts of: "We have increased by one gun."

Armed with these and a battery of other alarming facts, a coalition of human rights campaigners and aid groups warned yesterday that the spread of lethal weaponry was "out of control" and the war on terrorism was fuelling a rapid acceleration in the global arms trade, which is worth £17bn a year.

The group - led by Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms - is calling for a legally binding international arms trade treaty by 2006 that would stop governments selling arms to oppressive regimes and halt a trade which is making weaponry part of daily life in many countries. Campaigners will highlight the absence of any coherent or enforceable international regulation of the arms trade, which they say is increasing the misery of millions of the world's poor.

Trafalgar Square was turned into a mock graveyard to publicise the findings of a study by the campaigners. Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam, said: "The arms trade is out of control. It is a global problem with horrific local consequences and it is poor people who suffer the most. An arms trade treaty is desperately needed to stop the flow of arms to abusers and to help make all our societies safer."

The proliferation of weaponry, in particular small arms, is so widespread that it is responsible for the death of one person every minute and more than 500,000 killings a year, the study found. War in Africa causes economic losses of £10bn a year while the prevalence of guns in daily life is blamed in the group's report for retarding economic growth in countries including Brazil, Tanzania, Nicaragua and Uganda.

Leading industrialised countries including Britain are blamed for much of the increase in the trade. They are said to sell weaponry to favoured nations to protect their defence industries and do too little to stop the flow of arms to countries paralysed by internal conflict.

Experts highlighted the "cascade" effect of international arms sales from the wealthier northern hemisphere to the poorer south. The annual $25bn trade (£17bn) is strongest in the Middle East and north Africa, accounting for $12bn, and Asia, where it is worth $8bn.

The study pointed to what it said was a rapid increase in weapons sales by the US after 11 September, a time when arms control should be a greater priority.

Washington has increased its military aid to at least 10 countries identified by the US State Department as having poor human rights records, the report said. Last year, security assistance to Uzbekistan rose by $45m while in Pakistan it increased from $3.5m to $1.3bn despite allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings in both countries.

Britain is accused in the report of similar conduct in increasing arms exports to Indonesia from £2m in 2000 to more than £40m in 2002. "The gross abuses of human rights that armed forces allied to the 'war on terror' inflict on civilian populations are given little attention," the report says. "Arms and military assistance are being offered as a geopolitical inducement with few, if any, conditions to protect human rights."

The insidious spread of guns and assault rifles into daily life was of particular concern. Despite the presence of 639 million small arms in the world, nearly two-thirds of them privately owned, eight million more were made every year. In 2001, 16 billion units of military ammunition were made, enough to shoot everyone twice.

The result was an shadowy arms brokering industry under which weapons reach war-torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Afghanistan via third countries and licensing deals. "Electronic banking and tax havens have made international movements of finance much easier to organise and more difficult to trace, the report says. "Transporters avoid detection by flying planes on circuitous routes, via a number of airports, at night or at low altitudes to avoid radar; sometimes registration numbers are changed and 'flags of convenience' are used."

Societies that were once largely peaceful, with any scores being settled with fists or knives, have been transformed by the easy availability of guns, the study says.

In northern Kenya, the practice of cattle rustling, previously signalled by drums and chants rather than ambush and rarely resulting in death, has become a murderous practice. Two years ago, members of the Pokot tribe armed with Kalashnikov rifles raided the neighbouring Marakwet area, killing 47 people and burning schools, houses and shops to the ground.

Such levels of violence were previously unheard of, but the cost of a rifle in Kenya has fallen from 60 head of cattle in 1967 to just five in 2001. In South Africa, Kalashnikovs are so common that they are used as currency. A similar situation during the 1990s in Georgia resulted in an English teacher being paid in hand grenades for the lessons he had given to an elderly woman.

The report's authors claim that the only barrier to such a tidal wave of weaponry would be for governments to abandon the status quo, which in effect allows each nation to regulate its own arms sales and bring the industry under the control of the United Nations.

The Foreign Office said yesterday that it supported the aim of introducing stronger control of the arms trade but argued that an international consensus was required to make an treaty workable. A spokeswoman said: "It is a matter of being realistic. Total harmonisation is unlikely in the foreseeable future."

The arms trade treaty, which the campaigners want to be in place in time for an inter-governmental United Nations conference on small arms in 2006, would make it a breach of international law for a country to export weapons if it knew or ought to have known that they would be used for violations of human rights. The exporting countries would also be required to monitor the arms once they left their borders and draw up a blacklist of countries to which weaponry could not be sent.

If accepted, it is hoped the treaty would have an effect similar to the Mine Ban Treaty on anti-personnel mines which has ended all open trade in the weapons despite the fact that significant countries, including the United States, have not signed up.

An Amnesty spokesman said: "There is a compelling legal basis for this treaty and the moral case is overwhelming. If we can stop responsible countries from supplying weapons that could be used in atrocities then the focus will be on non-compliant governments - and finally we can begin to stop this carnage."

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