Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 24 April 2008

All at sea on arms trade controls

The brouhaha surrounding the attempted Chinese arms shipment to Zimbabwe is likely to die down a bit now that China has said that it has recalled the vessel still fully loaded with its cargo of 70 metric tons of Chinese weaponry (apparently including small arms ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and mortar tubes). The cargo had been destined for landlocked Zimbabwe's armed forces but could not be offloaded in any of Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries due to vehement opposition from unions, churches, courts, civil rights groups and other governments in light of the post-election violence currently gripping Zimbabwe.

Before looking into what this episode can tell us about current international efforts to develop a treaty that would regulate the global arms trade (an Arms Trade Treaty), it is worth retelling this remarkable story (at least as it has been presented through news reports):

It seems that, sometime during 2007, the Zimbabwe Ministry of Defence ordered the weaponry from China, one of its biggest trading partners. An invoice was apparently sent on 21 January 2008 and the goods, manufactured by Poly Technologies Inc. - a Chinese State-owned arms company - left China on the Chinese State-owned cargo ship, the An Yue Jiang, around the middle of March, presumably after payment (US$1.25m) had been received.

On April 14, a Monday, while the ship was approaching the South African port of Durban, Noseweek, an investigative magazine in Cape Town, reportedly received a phonecall from a whistle-blower advising of the ship, its cargo and the destination of both. When the ship anchored off Durban a few days later, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to unload the weapons, citing fears that Robert Mugabe's government might use them to crack down on opponents in the disputed election, the results of which had not yet been released, despite almost a month passing since the polls.

On April 18, the Friday of the same week, it was reported that the Durban High Court suspended the ship's conveyance permit and ordered that it and its cargo should stay put. When an attempt was made to serve the court order on the captain of the An Yue Jiang (it seems that the order was actually on its way to the cargo ship on a small boat), the latter weighed anchor and sailed away with the captain apparently announcing on the radio, "next stop Maputo," referring to the capital of Mozambique. This, it seems, was a feint since instead of sailing the short distance north-east to Maputo, the ship headed instead in the opposite direction, around the Cape of Good Hope, apparently making for Angola.

But it was not to be. South Africa's main trade union confederation called on workers in other African countries not to unload the weapons bound for Zimbabwe. Other countries, including Zambia and the United States, weighed in to urge countries in the region not to allow the arms to be delivered. The United States also asked China to halt the delivery and recall the vessel. The ship did reportedly manage to dock in Luanda, Angola, where it was allowed to unload other cargo, but not the weapons destined for Zimbabwe. Finally, with no South African port willing to accept it, the An Yue Jiang was reported on April 24 to be turning back towards China.

What stands out for me about this story, and the reason it can shed some light on the challenges to be faced in developing an Arms Trade Treaty, are the views that have been expressed about the appropriateness of this particular arms sale, particularly by Zimbabwe and China. Both countries point out that the sale was initiated long before the current crisis in Zimbabwe developed and that Zimbabwe is not under an arms embargo. Zimbabwe's Deputy Information Minister, Bright Matonga, is reported as saying that:

"Every country has got a right to acquire arms... How they are used, when they are going to be used is none of anybody's business."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry is reported as saying that:
"China has always had a prudent and responsible attitude towards arms sales, and one of the most important principles is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries."
At the 2005 World Summit, all of the world's Heads of State and Government agreed, for the first time, that states have a primary responsibility to protect their own populations and that the international community has a responsibility to act when these governments fail to do so.

Moreover, the broadly supported UN General Assembly resolution that initiated the current international effort to develop an Arms Trade Treaty recognises that:

"...the absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of conventional arms is a contributory factor to conflict, the displacement of people, crime and terrorism, thereby undermining peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability and sustainable development."

It is difficult to imagine how common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms could be developed without taking into account, inter alia, the internal situation of the recipient State.

The regional politics surrounding this episode are, of course, intricate; and certainly more complicated than media reports often capture. But it has certainly raised awareness about some of the issues at stake in moving towards common international standards in the arms trade. It also suggests that the process of developing an Arms Trade Treaty will not be an easy one. The saga of the An Yue Jian provides a valuable real-world case-study that should be of value to UN Member States as they grapple with ways of effectively regulating the global arms trade.

Patrick Mc Carthy

News reports used in compiling this post:

Photo Credit:
"Alone" by John Borrie