Arms proliferation: the West African contribution to a global treaty

21-05-2010 Interview

In the run-up to important United Nations discussions on a global Arms Trade Treaty, the ICRC asked Dr Cyriaque Agnekethom, in charge of small arms questions at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for a regional view of the issue.


Dr Cyriaque Agnekethom 

 What are “small arms” and “light weapons”?

  According to a UN panel of experts, "small arms" refer primarily to rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and other weapons used by an individual combatant. “Light weapons” are portable weapons designed for use by several persons serving as crew, such as heavy machine-guns, mortars, portable anti-tank guns, etc.  
  What is being done to draw up a global treaty on the trade in conventional weapons?
  In January 2010, the UN General Assembly decided to convene a Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, which is due to meet in 2012 to agree on a binding treaty. It called for four preparatory sessions to be held, the first two of which will take place in New York in July 2010. Faced with the humanitarian consequences of the uncontrolled arms trade, the ICRC has expressed its full support for a global treaty.    

       Why is the spread of small arms and light weapons a problem in West Africa?  

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons poses a major threat to peace and security in the region, as became evident during armed conflicts in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Côte d'Ivoire. Small arms also facilitate increased levels of cross-border crime facing ECOWAS member states. In view of this, it has become clear that the problem must be tackled through both political and legal frameworks.

 What has ECOWAS done about it?  

In 1998, ECOWAS heads of State and government declared a moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of small arms and light weapons. In 2006 this was transformed into a legally binding instrument – the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons – which came into force on 29 September 2009.

In 2006 the ECOWAS Commission also launched a Small Arms Programme (ECOSAP) based in Bamako, Mali, as a capacity-building programme for member States and civil society organizations to deal with the problem of proliferation. To help implement and monitor ECOWAS policy and regulation on the issue, it established a Small Arms Division within the Commission.

 Why is a comprehensive and global Arms Trade Treaty important to West Africa?  

Most countries in the region do not manufacture weapons, therefore most of the arms possessed by armed and security forces in West Africa have been imported. To curb the suffering caused by the unregulated availability of small arms and light weapons, the West African region needs to address the supply side of arms and the manner in which they come into the region. Negotiating a comprehensive and global Arms Trade Treaty is a rare and very important opportunity to reach agreement with governments worldwide on the principles, content and scope of a legally binding instrument to curb the problems associated with arms proliferation.

 What are the links between the ECOWAS Convention and a potential Arms Trade Treaty?  

The ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons contains agreed principles on arms transfers that member states should put forward during negotiations on a global Arms Trade Treaty. For instance, the Convention stipulates that all decisions to transfer small arms and light weapons should respect States'obligations under international law, including United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing arms embargoes.

In addition, the Convention says that transfers of small arms and light weapons will be denied if the arms were to be used to violate international humanitarian law or human rights, or would adversely aff ect regional security, sustainable development, and other regional interests.

Regarding the scope of weapons to be covered in an Arms Trade Treaty, discussions at the UN have focused on conventional weapons. As West African States possess mainly small arms and light weapons, curbing the region's problems will therefore require that an Arms Trade Treaty cover small arms and light weapons. Ammunition transfers should also be regulated, as arms are nothing without ammunition!

 What can ECOWAS do to encourage its member States to participate in the Arms Trade Treaty negotiation process?  

The first step is to convince ECOWAS member states that negotiating a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty is in the interest of the region, as this will complement principles and provisions that they have adhered to in the ECOWAS Convention. I think all member States should participate in elaborating an Arms Trade Treaty because they can make a rich contribution to the negotiating table, based on their own experience.

The ECOWAS Commission will continue to provide member States with updates on the Arms Trade Treaty process as well as technical information that can help them during negotiations. There is already an information bulletin jointly produced by the ICRC and ECOWAS for this purpose (see below). The ECOWAS Commission itself is planning to participate in Arms Trade Treaty negotiations. We have observer status at the UN and will be present during the first Preparatory Committee sessions from 12-23 July 2010.

 What are ECOWAS and the ICRC doing together about the spread of small arms and light weapons?  

The ICRC provided technical support to the ECOWAS Commission during the negotiation and final drafting of the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Right now we are in the implementation stage of this Convention and the ICRC is providing legal expertise to support the adoption of national legal and regulatory frameworks and the elaboration of guiding principles to review arms transfer requests by member States. Additionally, over the past three years the ICRC has been organizing seminars for the diplomatic corps in Abuja, to promote and discuss weapons treaties. I hope that this cooperation between the ICRC and ECOWAS will continue over time.

  Dr Agnekethom is Head of the Small Arms Division at the ECOWAS Commission in Abuja, Nigeria  

 For more information: