Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Rwanda: towards more effective arms control in the Great Lakes region

Publisher International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Publication Date 4 June 2012
Cite as International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Rwanda: towards more effective arms control in the Great Lakes region, 4 June 2012, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Small arms and light weapons are a major cause of violence in Africa. Experts and State representatives from the Great Lakes region gathered recently in Kigali to discuss this issue as well as the Arms Trade Treaty adoption process. Overview of these high-level discussions.

The meeting took place at the initiative of the ICRC in cooperation with the Rwandan ministry of internal security. According to Francis Wairagu, an expert from the Regional Centre on Small Arms – the only internationally recognized inter-governmental organization within the region whose sole duty is to address the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons (SALW) – governments have recognized the proliferation of illicit SALW in the Great Lakes region as one of the impediments to the achievement of desired development goals. Mr Wairagu also pointed out that SALW had become one of the dominant tools of violence in Africa.

Since 2006, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly recognized that the absence of common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms contributes to armed conflict, displacement, and terrorism and other crime. In January 2010, the General Assembly decided to convene a United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2012 to elaborate a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms. In the run-up to that conference, which will take place in July, the meeting brought together representatives from 10 countries in the region, including the five member States of the East African Community, and various diplomats. The aim was to discuss implementation of various existing SALW instruments and to prepare for negotiations on the ATT by discussing African positions.

SALW instruments

The United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects is the primary international framework for addressing trafficking, proliferation and misuse of SALW. The main instruments regulating the trade and transfer of SALW in East, Central, and West Africa are, respectively, the Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa, the Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition, Parts and Components that can be used for their Manufacture, Repair and Assembly, and the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The Nairobi Protocol, to which 15 States have adhered, entered into force on 21 April 2004. Looking at milestones achieved in terms of implementing the Nairobi Protocol, Mr Wairagu noted that SALW legislation has been harmonized in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition, eight member States have developed national action plans in line with the Nairobi Protocol, which has been further elaborated in a set of Best Practice Guidelines. Despite this significant progress, many challenges remain. These include weak national focal points, slow legislative processes and policy responses, inadequate resources to implement national action plans, a lack of coordinated national responses and the need for member States to take more responsibility for the Nairobi Protocol.

Various achievements under the ECOWAS Convention on SALW were among the experiences shared at the meeting. ECOWAS has a functioning SALW unit charged with coordination and implementation, and 14 of the 15 ECOWAS member States have national SALW commissions. Each member State is obliged to harmonize its legislation (eight countries already have draft bills) and there is a database on ECOWAS laws and regulations available online, which is also used for the management of stockpiles.

Potential overlap between SALW instruments and ATT

The region covered by the Regional Centre on Small Arms does not yet have ATT experts. Almost all the focal points attending the meeting were better informed about SALW than about the ATT. The meeting in Kigali therefore provided an opportunity to clarify potential overlaps, such as international transfers and brokering, and the chief differences between the United Nations Programme of Action on SALW and the ATT. The main point was the difference of objectives: the Programme of Action principally aims to regulate the availability of SALW already within a country, whereas the ATT aims to regulate international transfers of all conventional arms. It was understood that the ATT would not ultimately replace the Programme of Action, but that both instruments would contribute to full regulation of small arms availability.

Arms Trade Treaty: where are we now?

Discussions on the ATT have begun to raise a variety of questions on the weapons, ammunition and transactions covered, and on what the transfer criteria would be based on. Jacques Villettaz, the head of the ICRC delegation in Kigali, indicated that two points were crucial to the success of the negotiations in July: an agreement on a sufficiently broad range of conventional weapons and ammunition, and on strict transfer criteria requiring a denial of transfer if there is a sufficiently high risk of serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

The last meeting of the United Nations ATT Preparatory Committee in February 2012 concluded with an agreement that civil society would participate in discussions, and with the decision that the chair's paper would serve as a background document for the negotiations. "We are now at the final juncture in the run-up to the July 2012 conference," said Rodger Glokpor from the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, based in Lomé, Togo. "There is still time to reflect on points lacking agreement and hammer out potential solutions."

At the meeting in Kigali, Nathalie Weizmann, an ATT expert at the ICRC in Geneva, compared the different common positions on the ATT in Africa, focusing on the scope of the ATT and criteria for authorizing arms transfers. She emphasized that a large number of African countries have adopted or begun to develop common positions, as the Central African States have done with the Sao Tome Declaration, or ECOWAS with its common position. The ICRC's own position is that all conventional weapons should be included without exception, given that all arms by their very nature can be used to commit violations.

Potential challenges of the ATT

A strong ATT needs to be as broad in scope as possible. "It is important to have a broad scope, which means including all conventional arms, SALW, and their ammunition, within the ambit of the treaty," said Deepayan Basu Ray, an expert from Oxfam UK. "While some States are calling for the ATT to cover only the seven categories of conventional weapons on the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, the categories are very specific and would only serve as a starting point," he added. Another important fact to consider is that the trade in arms parts and components is becoming just as important as the transfer of complete arms. "What is more regrettable, however, is that the chair's draft paper does not include some very important categories of transfer, including gifts and loans, temporary transfer, retransfer, technical assistance, leases and trans-shipment," said the Oxfam expert.

Strong transfer criteria, based on humanitarian concerns, are also crucial to the success of an ATT. What should be reflected within an ATT is the duty of all States to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Ms Weizmann has suggested that States should be required to assess whether there exists a clear risk that arms transferred would be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, and, if such a risk exists, to refuse transfer. She pointed out that such a transfer criterion is already provided for in existing regional instruments such as the Nairobi Protocol's Best Practice Guidelines, the Central African Convention, and the ECOWAS Convention.

The ICRC encouraged States to take advantage of the momentum gained at the meeting in Kigali and include national SALW action plans in national government priorities. The ICRC also encouraged States to ensure that the information and knowledge gathered at such meetings are widely shared at the national and regional level in preparation for the ATT negotiations.

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