United States Making Progress Against Arms Trafficking

By Elisa Walton
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States needs to continue working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including faith-based organizations, to fight arms trafficking in Africa, a U.S. Department of State official told a meeting of religious leaders from across Africa and the United States July 20.

The group had gathered in Washington for the Interfaith Summit on Africa, a four-day conference held to facilitate a dialogue between U.S. and African religious leaders.  The meeting, in which some U.S. government officials participated, was sponsored by the international humanitarian agency, Church World Service.  More than 50 faith leaders from 21 African countries attended.

Conference sessions focused on some of the most critical issues facing the continent, including HIV/AIDS, displaced people and arms trafficking.  Steven Costner, who is the deputy director of the State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, addressed the role of the U.S. government in preventing illegal commerce in weapons.

In addition to destroying small arms and light weapons (SALW), Costner said, the United States also is seeking to eliminate “explosive remnants of war" such as land mines left in the ground long after a conflict is over.

Illicit weapons trafficking across national borders poses a danger for peace and political stability in Africa, he said, by exacerbating conditions of political, economic or social insecurity and aggravating historic animosities.  Many rogue states that acquire arms do so to destabilize neighboring countries or support terrorist or rebel organizations, he added.

Costner listed four pillars of U.S. policy on arms trafficking: strict import and export laws and certification regulations, destruction of surplus and obsolete SALW, increased security for existing national weapons stockpiles, and the systematic marking and tracing of SALW.

The United States works with contractors and NGOs, such as the Mines Advisory Group, to enhance humanitarian assistance and security.  Some of the countries recently benefiting from this work include Mozambique, Rwanda, Chad, Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Somalia, Costner said.

Since 2001, he said, the United States has contributed $37 million to destroy 900,000 SALW and associated munitions of various calibers in 25 countries, usually at the request of the host country.

In addition, U.S. law requires strict monitoring of exports of significant military equipment to safeguard against exports causing instability or contributing to crime, civil violence or human rights abuses, or slipping into the hands of illicit users. According to Costner, U.S. law amounts to "an international gold standard, the most robust and effective in the world."

Abroad, the United States exercises an oversight role, pushing for similarly effective and transparent export and import controls, as well as the regulation of arms brokers and the enforcement of international embargoes.  The State Department leads interagency efforts to engage major suppliers and importers of SALW and promote better compliance with existing laws.

In addition to examining the suppliers and recipients of weapons shipments, the United States examines all parties to a transaction, including the shippers, brokers and middlemen, checking their names against an "extensive watch-list" of companies and individuals suspected of involvement in illicit activities, Costner said.

The United States is among the few countries that do not limit oversight based on national boundaries, said Costner.  The United States tracks weapons originating in the United States, requiring, for example, that commercial or government buyers of U.S. weapons obtain U.S. approval before transferring them.

Law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security work with the FBI and the Department of State to investigate violations of U.S. contracts.  They investigate about 550 to 600 arms sales per year, about 10 percent to 20 percent of which uncover wrongdoing, according to Ed Peartree of the Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance at the State Department.  The U.S. undertakes these post-shipment checks when a concern arises, for instance if a recipient company is not well known or operates in a country with a reputation as a transit point for arms.

Arms trafficking offenders can receive penalties of up to 10 years in prison and $1 million in criminal fines.

If a government is involved in an arms diversion, the consequences are more serious, said Costner.  These could include sanctions and the curtailment of further arms sales, assistance and military financing and training.

Although progress is being made, Costner said success will take more time and resources.  It is "truly a global issue," and the United States "cannot handle the problem alone” and needs to form strategic alliances, he said.  The U.S. engages in dialogue with various NGO's on the issue, such as at the Interfaith Summit, and takes into account their opinions.

Leaders of many different faiths are concerned about the issue from a humanitarian perspective, and the U.S. government welcomes their participation, officials say.  According to the White House Web site, "these (faith-based) organizations have an essential role to play in combating poverty and lessening suffering."  Also, they "inspire hope in a way that government never can," President Bush said in a statement on the site. 

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is working to change rules to make it easier for faith-based groups to work with federal government agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Baffour D. Amoa, secretary-general of the Fellowship of Churches and Councils in West Africa and chairman of the West Africa Action Network on Small Arms, seconded Costner's call for international action.  "Africa is bleeding and we need help," he said.  He called arms trafficking a "hindrance to the development of the African continent" that requires "our collective attention and action."

Additional information is available on the State Department Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement Web site.