In the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, an AK-47 assault rifle costs as little as $20.
It’s cheap and easy access to weapons like this that is helping to fuel the deadly violence in the country’s east, a long-running conflict that ranks as the most deadly since World War II.
With poorly monitored borders and weak controls on air transport, arms have been able to flow unchecked into eastern DRC for years. Other deadly weapons are also readily available, ranging from small arms and ammunition, to land mines and rocket-propelled grenades.
As the conflict in the DRC has intensified in recent months, so too has the demand for arms, while efforts to collect and destroy illicit weapons in circulation have slowed to a trickle.
Since just last week up to 120,000 people have fled the violence and are in dire need of shelter, water and food. Almost 2.5 million people are now displaced across eastern Congo, and there are few places of refuge.
Given the absence of strong geographical, political or trade ties between the DRC and Australia, we may not seem an obvious country of choice to help address the devastating conflict.
But Australia’s influence in the international peace and security arena is growing, giving us a significant role to play in helping to protect people such as those in the DRC from violence. Australia’s election to the UN Security Council increases this responsibility, and from January 1, when Australia takes its seat at the Security Council, the DRC will be a core priority in that forum.
But perhaps less well-known is Australia’s leadership in negotiations for the world’s first global arms trade treaty. While complex international trade rules exist for everything from MP3 players to bananas, there are still no corresponding regulations for trading in guns and bullets.
An arms trade treaty would create legally binding minimum standards for the $60 billion-a-year trade in conventional arms, which covers everything from grenades to battleships, closing the loopholes in the patchwork of existing controls.
Just last week, Australia’s ambassador to Geneva, Peter Woolcott, was appointed as president-designate of the final round of treaty negotiations in March next year. Having already played a strong leadership role to date as one of the co-authors of every UN resolution on the arms trade treaty, Australia is better placed than ever to help achieve a strong and effective treaty.
There is a draft treaty on the table, but it will need to be strengthened to make a difference. The draft treaty has weaker controls for ammunition compared to other weapons, and exemptions for some weapons transfers that could allow irresponsible deals to continue to slip through the net.
These issues need to be addressed in March, and Australia will need to fulfil its promise to be a creative middle power to make that happen.
Australia’s success in driving these negotiations, both as champion of the arms trade treaty and through Woolcott’s chairmanship, must be measured on the quality of the treaty that comes out of the process at the end.
So rather than rushing towards agreement, Australia needs to push world governments to make the tough decisions needed to reach a strong and effective arms trade treaty one that will make it harder for dodgy arms dealers to transfer weapons to places where they will fuel human rights abuses and conflict. It also needs to support fragile countries such as DRC to better control and monitor arms flows into its territory.
Australia’s leadership in helping to deliver this kind of contribution to international peace and security will not only be a foreign policy victory, it will also help to protect millions of people around the globe who every day bear the brunt of violence.
Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial was first published in The Australian on 26 November 2012.