The arms trade is a matter of life and death

February 14 2012, 7:33 AM by Ray Acheson

Churches around the world have taken a strong interest in the ongoing
arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiations. The reason for that is clear.
Churches are not outsiders visiting conflict-stricken places to do
research or write reports. Parishioners, priests, and other church
workers share the daily life, fears, and hopes of communities marked
by violence when the trade in conventional weapons is poorly regulated
or not regulated at all.

by Jonathan Frerichs, World Council of Churches

With other members of the community, they are challenged to stand up
for human dignity and to defend human life. Since churches are already
present in communities affected by violence, they may also have the
trust and confidence to bring local voices into the international
arena. Such is the case for the ATT.

Again and again, testimonies based on life experiences at the local
level reinforce the importance of regulating the arms trade globally.
Here are a few examples from a continent where the deleteriousconsequences of the illicit trade in weapons are tragically apparent.

The Honorable Joy Kwaje, member of parliament in South Sudan and
long-time leader of church women, is all too familiar with conflicts
exacerbated by illicit supplies of weapons. Early this year, 6,000
young fighters from one ethnic group raided the territory of another
group in a dispute over cattle stealing. “The attackers were from an
ethnic group that just went through a disarmament process two years
ago. Now they have brand-new guns. They killed about 600 people. Where
does one get new guns for 6,000 young men?”

In neighboring Uganda, Fr. Silvester Arinaitwe, general secretary of
the Uganda Joint Christian Council, says, “We lobby as churches to
stop the illegal international arms trade, and at the same time to
conscientize the public in communities at risk about their rights and
responsibilities as citizens, including the ban on having illegal
weapons.” He adds, “Cooperation between governments in our region is
important to control such weapons.”

Dr. Irene Tschangou, a gynaecologist, works at a hospital in
Democratic Republic of Congo that treated 2,591 victims of sexual
violence last year. Nearly half were cases of gender-based violence
used as a weapon of war. Such violence, she notes, “increases
mortality and morbidity, diseases, family breakdowns and the collapse
of social structures—the same effects as military weapons.“ All
survivors need medical care and 75 percent also need psychological
care. Tchangou says her work relies on faith: “Our wish is to have a
world without gender-based violence.”

Mr. Cleophas Basaluci directs a church aid agency in eastern D.R.
Congo. “Men who use guns to make money take a heavy toll on their
communities. Their weapons come from the illicit trade in arms. They
are used to rob people, extort money and rape women,” he says.
Farming, travel, and community services are all vulnerable.
“International action is needed to stop the supply of weapons so we
can get out of this vicious cycle and get on with developing our
country,” he says.
Ms. Ebun James, who heads the Sierra Leone Council of Churches, has
seen her country recover slowly from a long and violent civil war.
“The only way to deal with illegal weapons is to get rid of them and
to stop new guns getting in,” she says. “It is like trying to stop
smoking—you cannot keep getting cigarettes if you want to quit.”

Stories like these show why the ATT negotiations matter for many
people around the world. The arms trade is not a normal business. Most
states recognize the fact by imposing controls on arms at the national
level. The ATT is about recognizing the same fact inter-nationally and
imposing protective, common-sense controls at that level too.

In the stories above, aspects of scope, criteria, and implementation
of an ATT are evident. Arms flows across borders including small arms
and light weapons are factors in Sudan, Uganda, and D.R. Congo today,
and during Sierra Leone’s civil war. The Sudan story speaks to human
rights criteria, sustainable development, and international
assistance. The Uganda case speaks to cross-border cooperation, and
the Congo story speaks to socio-economic development, gender-based
violence, and endemic violations of basic rights.

To back up these real-life experiences, leaders of churches and
related organisations on six continents have written to their
governments for this PrepCom to urge that the Arms Trade Treaty must
include: binding criteria on International Human Rights Law and
International Humanitarian Law, sustainable development, gender-based
violence and survivor assistance; broad scope including small arms and
light weapons, ammunition and parts; and robust provisions for
implementation, cooperation, transparency and reporting.

On the ground, where the often distant consequences of irresponsible
arms trading have effects on people’s lives, all of these criteria are
real. Families, communities and nations at risk stand to benefit from
a strong and effective arms trade treaty or will continue to suffer if
such a treaty is weak and ineffective instead. The arms trade is in
many hands, but it is governments with clear and defined obligations
to their citizens who will ultimately decide if the ATT will do its
part to shift the balance—protectively—on matters of life and death.