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Hunger in the Sahel and international arms control: what's the link?

April 26, 2012
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In a second post on the impending UN Arms Trade Treaty, Oxfam arms trade policy adviser Martin Butcher discusses the links between Libya’s arms race and hunger in the SahelMartin Butcher Work Head Shot

The growing food crisis provoked by drought in the Sahel is affecting millions of people. This crisis has been deepened by the conflict in Mali sparked by the proliferation of arms from Libya in the wake of the fall of Colonel Gadhafi. Some 200,000 Malians have fled from the fighting, which engulfed the whole of Northern Mali from January to March this year. This situation of drought + conflict is providing some harrowing evidence of the need for effective international control of the arms trade. Oxfam has worked for ten years on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), currently under negotiation at the United Nations.

Tuareg tribes in northern Mali have refused to accept the authority of the Bamako government since independence in the 1960s, and their last rebellion ended in 2009 with Malian government forces victorious. But as the war in Libya turned against Colonel Gadhafi, Tuareg fighters from Libya’s armed forces began to return home and formed the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The MNLA are much better armed than previous Tuareg fighters. Malian government forces have reported fighting against men armed with four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons or multiple rocket launchers, and Milan anti-tank missiles. The UN has said that substantial amounts of those kinds of heavy weapons, as well thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, substantial quantities of semtex explosive, thousands of small arms and tonnes of ammunition and grenades have flowed into the Sahel from Libya. There are also persistent reports that MANPADS – single operator anti-aircraft missiles – have been smuggled out of Libya. The Libyan government had stockpiled some 40,000 of these weapons, and only 5,000 have been accounted for. Many were undoubtedly destroyed during NATO’s bombing, but several thousand have probably been smuggled out of Libya to the Tuaregs, to terrorist groups, and into the region’s black market for arms.

In addition to being better armed than ever before, the Tuareg fighters from the Libyan army are better trained and disciplined than rebels in the past. As the rebellion began, things went badly for government forces and on 21 March, army officers led by a Captain Sanogo, angered at being outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the MNLA, carried out a coup d’etat to overthrow President Toure. In the wake of the coup, all of northern Mali has fallen to the MNLA without serious fighting, and the Tuaregs declared the end of fighting and a free Azawad in early April.

Malian soldiers

Malian soldiers

In the South, the coup leaders are now working with ECOWAS and political figures in Mali to restore civilian government as soon as possible. While there is no fighting at present, interim President Traore (former speaker of the Malian parliament) has threatened to wage ‘total war’ on the north if the rebels do not submit to his authority. The army continues to call for more weapons. More fighting is likely in coming months.

How would an ATT help? For a start, in a situation like Mali, a treaty would cut off weapons heading for a conflict zone to encourage political negotiation. National legislation for Arms Trade Treaty implementation would require security sector reform and improve civilian control of the military, both vital areas of good governance that contribute to socio-economic development.

The ATT would provide simple rules, globally enforced, which would detail when an arms exporter could, and could not, send arms to a prospective buyer. If it was thought that the sale of arms might result in breaches of human rights or international humanitarian law; could damage socio-economic development of the recipient state; provoke or prolong a conflict; or lead to diversion to terrorist or into the black market – such a sale would be banned. This would apply to all conventional arms and equipment. While individual countries have such export control policies, there is no such global regulation.

It is likely that, had an ATT been in place in the past twenty years, Libya would have been unable to build up the excessive stocks of arms that are now fuelling conflict in the Sahel. And, given the transparency and reporting mechanism that will be built into the treaty, much more would now be known about just what those stockpiles contained, and where they were stored. This would have allowed effective international action to contain them in the wake of the war.

The Sahel risks being trapped in a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of hunger, conflict and bad governance. That cycle can be interrupted

Tuareg rebels

Tuareg rebels

at various points by action at both national and international level – building food security, fast and effective aid, and passing an ATT that will prevent the kinds of disastrous spillover Mali has suffered from the fall of Colonel Gadhafi.

Martin Butcher is Oxfam’s policy adviser on the Arms Trade Treaty


  1. An interesting read and a useful attempt to show the link between hunger in the Sahel and the Arms Trade Treaty. But…

    I don’t agree with this point of view: “It is likely that, had an ATT been in place in the past twenty years, Libya would have been unable to build up the excessive stocks of arms that are now fuelling conflict in the Sahel.” NO.

    The arms fuelling conflict in the Sahel from Libya, would never have been this available if NATO spurred by France and the UK had not decided to bomb Khadaffi out of power without thinking properly about the nature in which that state was built.

    There is not state in Libya. Just puppets who have no control on whatever arsenal any state would legitimately acquire. Now, that is having an impact elsewhere. Let’s not run away from the truth. Would these Tuaregs have left Libya with such arsenal as described if the Libyan state was still functional?

    As to the hunger in the Sahel, please…drought in a part of the world that depends almost entirely on rain-fed agriculture, in addition to insect infestations and a lack of resilience mechanisms are the main reasons for the food shortages. Those are the reasons, even Oxfam gave for the food crisis, well before war broke out in Mali.

    Isn’t it stretching things to far to try to make a direct link between food crisis in all of the Sahel with the conflict in Mali in order to argue for the ATT?

    Admittedly, there are some links. Food aid access to Mali’s north is tough due to the conflict, the refugees and internally displaced persons are piling pressure on the meagre food resources of the host areas which are already in the throes of the food crisis and, of course, the conflict in Libya sent lots of people packing out meaning an end to remittances that have often been of assistance to people in the Sahel during food problems (would this have happened without NATO/western backed destruction of the Libyan state?)

    But, food and malnutrition troubles in Chad, northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia were not the result of Tuaregs running around with weapons from Libya’s armouries

  2. Isat,

    You make some very interesting points. I do indeed believe that NATO bears a large responsibility for this situation. You can read on my personal (nothing to do with Oxfam) blog my analysis of that:

    We concentrate here on Mali because that is where the security situation is worst. But AQIM are very active in Mauretania, and there is evidence of Libyan weapons deepening existing crises in Niger, Chad and the Sudans.

    The food crisis is the result largely of the weather, but the increased conflict levels in the Sahel have made it much harder to deal with that situation – creating refugee flows that would not have existed otherwise; cutting off access to certain areas – generally making a bad situation worse. Thanks for your thoughts, Martin

  3. Very thought provoking ! Indeed reducing the ability of Malian government (and other Ecowas countries ?) now may push it even more towards negotiating with the MNLA… but then how is it supposed to deal with AQIM, which has much less men than MNLA, but much better trained and equipped and potentially representing a greater military and political threat to stability across the Sahel ? And which does not seem much interested in any kind of political settlement…

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