India: The human cost of the unregulated arms trade

18 August 2009

IANSA woman Binalakshmi Nepram-Mentschel writes about her speech to delegates at the United Nations in honour of the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives to gun violence.

In July I spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in honor of the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives to gun violence in my part of the world. The very fact that I spoke before such an influential decision-making body is testimony to how I, and millions of others worldwide, have survived violence caused by unregulated arms trade and have chosen a life dedicated to the cause of peace.

In my home region of Manipur alone, I find weapons from 13 countries fueling a bloody conflict. Though some of the countries represented that day at the UN had never heard of my state, the very fact that weapons produced in their countries have found their way to our towns and villages is a valid enough reason to find out how they came and what can be done to prevent the flow of arms. The global community has a responsibility to urgently end this mayhem.

Throughout my childhood I saw weapons from both state and non-state actors taking control of our lives and our futures – and I thought all this was a normal part of growing up. I lost my 12-year-old niece in the violence and later my family was subjected to a death warrant and displaced for almost half a year due to the conflict.

Every day in my work I come across men, women and children who have endured deep psychological crises to overcome the impact of unregulated arms trade on their lives. Several years back I met Phillem Johnson of Moirang, who told me his story. “A firing incident in 1999 robbed me off my teen [years] and my future,” he said. “One boy was killed and I, along with another, was wounded. A bullet pierced my spinal cord and I became paraplegic. My dreams of becoming a doctor and a sportsman were shattered in an instant.”

The monetary value of international authorized exports of arms is relatively small in global terms, amounting to around $51.1 billion USD per year – representing less than half the value of the global coffee market. But this completely belies the international significance of the arms trade. The arms industry manufactures products and provides services, which only maim and kill.

We all share the responsibility of enacting an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) so that no more human lives are lost. One would expect, therefore, a strong degree of control commensurate with this responsibility – governments and industry working together to ensure that these weapons are used and sold responsibly.

Yet the arms trade is like no other, operating outside the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organization, the parameters of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the bounds of the arms non-proliferation regime. The control is left to individual governments, which may be unwilling or unable to ensure responsible practices.

Recent research has identified 1,135 companies manufacturing arms and ammunition in at least 98 countries – and these numbers are only increasing. 90% of the conventional arms exports in the world are from the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, Russia, China and France. Seven of the eight G8 countries are among the world’s largest arms exporters. Most of these weapons go to our part of the world, namely the developing world. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East hold 51% of the world’s heavy weapons that come from the developed world.

The profusion of arms-producing companies and nations presents a clear challenge to those who advocate strong controls.

At the UN General Assembly, several governments stated that if national controls are strong enough, we do not need an international treaty. But most national controls are woefully weak, riddled with loopholes, characterized by wide gaps between policy and practice – and as a result, they allow easy access to lethal weaponry.

National and domestic legislation cannot tackle the problem alone. In many national legislatures, such as in India, sophisticated arms used in terrorist acts and rights violations are not included and hence not subject to controls. One country alone cannot address the problem and it is time that we recognize this.

An international Arms Trade Treaty is desperately needed to ban all international arms transfers that pose a substantial risk of being used to undermine poverty reduction, facilitate crime, or in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Governments thus need to work together to be more accountable to their citizens in their provision of protection from armed violence. Governments and civil society must work together to improve safety at the community level and to help the men, women and children who have survived the violence.

The call for an ATT has been supported by millions of citizens around the world. Several imminent Indians like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, former scientific advisor to the Prime Minister MGK Menon and former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Ramdas, along with over 50,000 people in India have called for an ATT. And we continue to work tirelessly with parliamentarians, more than 60 of whom are already supporting us in this endeavor.

The government of India, in a 2007 report to the UN Secretary General, stated “It is premature to begin work on a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” While the US has previously opposed discussions on a future Arms Trade Treaty like India once did, they are now willing to fully engage in the debate. The process seems to be on track as the historic consensus just showed. At the recently held open-ended working group on Arms Trade Treaty in New York, a clear message was given that a small number of states must no longer block the desire of the overwhelming majority for a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty.

We must cut off the irresponsible supply of arms and drain the pool of existing uncontrolled weapons. All governments must take responsible and concerted action to control the proliferation, possession, and misuse of arms, in line with international law. The irresponsible use and transfer of arms is neither inevitable nor in the interests of any state. The time for action is now.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Peace will not come out of a clash of arms but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds.”

Bina re-purposed this article from her recent speech at the United Nations.

About the Author

Binalakshmi Nepram-Mentschel was born in the state of Manipur in India's Northeast region state, bordering Myanmar. She is a writer-activist who is spearheading work on making disarmament a movement and meaningful issue. In 2004, Bina co-founded India's first civil society organization dedicated to conventional disarmament issues, the Control Arms Foundation of India. And in 2007, Bina launched the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network. Bina was awarded a Ploughshares Fellowship in 2004 to work on small arms mitigation in northeastern India and the 2006 WISCOMP Scholar of Peace for her work on women and disarmament issues.

Bina has authored two books, South Asia's Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India's Northeast and Meckley, a historical fiction based on the conflict in Manipur and an edited volume titled India and the Arms Trade Treaty.

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