Our Chance For An Arms Treaty

MY COUNTRY, Liberia, has a coat of arms that shows the sun rising behind a 19th-century sailing ship bringing Africans back from slavery in America to start a new life in Africa. That voyage was the result of a movement by many countries that agreed slavery was a terrible wrong done to the people of Africa. They worked together to stop slavery and in 1847 Liberia became the first independent Republic in Africa.Today, 160 years later, I am asking the international community to remember that time of accord and come together to right another wrong by cleansing my country and others from the curse of the uncontrolled trade in arms.

We in Liberia have been working hard, since our 14 years of civil war ended in 2003, to clear the country of the weapons that killed an estimated 250,000 people -- about 8 percent of the population. We knew that we could not rebuild society unless we ended the violence. By 2004, we disarmed and demobilized more than 100,000 combatants, and recovered and destroyed about 28,000 weapons and 8 million rounds of ammunition.

But all our efforts will come to naught if the international trade in weapons is not controlled, and weapons are easily accessible and proliferated across our borders by individuals or groups in search of profits.

This truth remains on my mind as I survey the achievements of the 14 months since I assumed office as president of Liberia. We have started to repair roads and bridges. Tens of thousands of displaced people have been resettled with tools and seeds. Dozens of health clinics have been rehabilitated. Through a combination of efficiency and anticorruption measures, we expect to increase government revenues by 50 percent this year. We are working hard on a plan for legal and judicial reform. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to investigate and heal the wounds of war, is now functioning, even if with expected teething problems.

During the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the United Nations forbade the export of weapons to our countries. Clearly, the sanctions did not work. Arms brokers and traders found ways around the rules and millions of weapons came here from many parts of the world. Except for what appears to be token cases, those arms dealers and governments that facilitated their activities have yet to be punished.

Many countries in Africa and across the world face similar problems. Elections in the subregion, especially those in Nigeria, have suffered credibility problems because arms fell into the wrong hands. The tragedies in Darfur and eastern Congo, and in particular their impact on civilian populations, are worsened by the easy availability of weapons.

We need an international Arms Trade Treaty. This would address the loopholes that have so long been exploited by arms dealers, often working with the tacit approval of governments keen to see their armaments industries flourish. The treaty would establish the simple principle that there will be no more transfers of weapons likely to be used for violations of international law.

Last December, 153 countries backed the call at the United Nations for progress toward an Arms Trade Treaty. The process of collecting submissions from UN member states has begun, and all governments should back the tough treaty based on international human rights and humanitarian law.

In parallel, a People's Consultation, organized by the Control Arms campaign, is being held in more than 60 countries, including Liberia. This will bring the powerful testimony of those who have suffered because of arms to be heard at the United Nations.

There could be a UN treaty on the arms trade by the end of this decade -- if we keep up the momentum.

There is a Liberian proverb that goes like this: The missing black sheep, which you did not see during daylight, you will never see at night.

It tells us to seize an opportunity when it presents itself. For us to succeed in stopping arms transfers that fuel human-rights abuses, conflict, and poverty, the opportunity is now. World governments, arms manufacturers, arms brokers, and arms traders should not deny this chance to consolidate peace for our children and ourselves.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is president of Liberia.

(c) Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe

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