UNITED NATIONS - With 1.3 trillion dollars spent every year on the world's militaries, countries enmeshed in conflict are often flooded by weapons which are then turned against helpless civilian populations, say human rights organisations pushing for an international treaty to closely regulate arms sales.
"If a country is likely to be involved in warfare, then it is unjustifiable to sell arms. There must be regulation or control of arms -- especially when the countries that are buying them are involved in a conflict," Valentino Deng told IPS in an interview.
Deng's experiences formed the basis of Dave Eggers's recent novel "What is the What", which fictionalises the story of his life as a refugee of the Sudanese civil war. When Deng's village was attacked and burnt down, he was separated from his family and fled on foot with a group of other young boys. On the journey to a refugee camp in Kenya, they encountered great danger and terrible hardships.
"I saw people being killed by aerial bombings and I saw villages burnt to ashes," he told IPS. "I witnessed one of the incidents when a mother was killed and her young child was trying to breastfeed on the dead mother. At that time, I was wondering about one thing: who was supplying all these arms for war and conflict?"
The U.N. peacekeeping force's former commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, General Patrick Cammaert, saw firsthand the futility of disarmament without controlling the supply of arms at the same time. "You had the feeling," he said last year, "that you were mopping up the floor when the tap was open. One moment you disarm a group, and then a week later the same group has fresh arms and ammunition."
A new report by Oxfam International reveals how irresponsible arms transfers undermine many developing countries' chances of achieveing their development goals. Either these transfers are draining the governments' resources or fuelling armed conflict, or both.
The international arms trade is also considered to be one of the three most corrupt businesses in the world, according to Transparency International, the leading global organisation monitoring corruption.
"What is clear is that if you want to achieve the development goals, with poverty reduction, improved health care and education, you need to control arms transfers, " said Katherine Nightingale, author of the Oxfam report.
At least 22 of the 34 countries least likely to achieve the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals are in the midst of, or emerging from conflict, according to U.N. statistics. Oxfam notes that between 1990 and 2005, 23 African countries together lost an estimated 284 billion dollars as a result of armed conflicts, fuelled by transfers of ammunition and arms -- 95 percent of which came from outside Africa.
An investigative report by Amnesty International last month found that clandestine gun suppliers, funded by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, have flooded Iraq with a million weapons since 2003.
Because of faulty or non-existent government tracking systems, many of those guns have gone missing, and some have turned up in the hands of insurgents, Amnesty said.
According to the Oxfam report, a comprehensive and effective international arms trade treaty must be agreed to ensure more responsibility and transparency. Existing international initiatives like the Geneva Declaration to address armed violence are simply insufficient, it says.
"In parts of Africa there are strong regional agreements. But this is not enough. Arms trade is a global industry. We want a global arms trade treaty to ensure that states are hold accountable for the processes of procuring arms. International regulations are far behind in this aspect, " Nightingale told IPS.
Worldwide support for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was reflected when 153 states voted in favour during the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006. And later this month, U.N. member states will meet again to consider further steps to move towards negotiations on an ATT.
In the run-up to these discussions, a few states, including China, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, have been attempting to block, delay and water down proposals, advocates say. This could kill the treaty before real negotiations even begin and allow continued unchecked trade in arms, human rights organisations fear.
Amnesty International, Oxfam, and others are now calling for the General Assembly to start a negotiating process during 2009 so that the international community can benefit from a legally-binding and universal Arms Trade Treaty by the end of 2010.