How can arms embargoes be made more effective?

The AU is taking a well-timed look at how arms embargoes can be better implemented.

Arms embargoes are the most common type of sanction currently applied by the United Nations (UN), and one of the five main types of targeted or smart sanctions (others are diplomatic sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes and commodity interdiction).

The key aim of smart sanctions is to raise the regime’s costs of non-compliance (with the sanctions) without bringing about the wider suffering often associated with comprehensive sanctions, such as trade bans.

How effective these embargoes are in Africa is the subject of much debate; not least because the continent has been subjected to the majority of arms embargoes since the UN’s first stand-alone arms embargo against apartheid South Africa in 1977. Since then, several African countries have faced such embargoes; some repeatedly. Liberia, for example, experienced a series of UN-imposed arms embargoes in varying degrees and forms between 1992 and 2016. Despite this, illicit weapons continued to be trafficked into the country.

The African Union (AU) has sought to establish why these embargoes have had minimal impact on the continent. In March 2016, the chairperson of the Commission on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation noted how reports by UN sanctions committees have highlighted ‘limited institutional capacity of states in monitoring and enforcing embargoes, particularly with regards to border controls, as well as the problem of effective information sharing among states and sanctions committees.’

How effective arms embargoes are in Africa is the subject of much debate

This statement by the AU could not have come at a better time. Some of the countries that have experienced armed conflict in recent years, such as Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, have recently had their embargoes lifted. This raises the need to understand how these countries performed under the embargoes, and whether the lifting was as a result of effective implementation.

The UN also highlights the need for countries to contain embargo violations. It acknowledges that numerous challenges continue to hinder effective implementation, particularly regarding international enforcement.

This is despite the fact that the UN Security Council has established sanctions committees and panels of experts to assist with monitoring and reporting on violations.

Some analysts assert that multilateral arms embargoes are implemented more effectively than unilateral ones given that more countries participate in them. The more countries enforce the embargo, the more difficult it is for violators to gain ground.

In Africa, many countries are unable to enforce embargoes. A study currently being conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) focuses on the need for the AU to understand the impact of arms embargoes on the continent and why (some) African states find enforcement challenging.

As part of the ISS study, interviews were conducted with several policymakers and local actors in countries that are either facing or emerging from arms embargoes. These conversations highlighted a number of factors that may be useful to the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) in enhancing the effectiveness of these embargoes.

A militant leader retorted, 'So even the UN knows me? My group is becoming famous.'

Preliminary findings suggest that embargoes do help to curb arms supplies to unauthorised users in the period immediately after such embargoes are imposed. Interviews indicate that this effect, however, only lasts for a year or two after the introduction of the embargo.

This is often the period when parties to the conflict begin to disengage and UN peacekeeping forces are deployed, including observers and monitoring missions. When this settles down, a renewed demand for arms gradually takes effect. Illicit proliferation sets in and embargo violations become common.

Porous borders and the role of neighbouring states pose the biggest challenges as arms traffickers and suppliers exploit weak legislation and corrupt governments. This confirms what some refer to as a structural phenomenon in a growing market where illegal dealers continually look for ways of substituting law-abiding arms suppliers.

Second, many violators of arms embargoes in post-conflict African states are village-based heads of militia groups who often operate from hideouts in rough terrain. These individuals very rarely travel outside their zones of command and control. They don’t use ‘modern’ bank accounts, nor do they own assets that could be frozen. Yet, they may control vast areas of natural resources and command authority over groups of armed militia responsible for illicit arms trafficking, various human rights abuses, including the use of child soldiers.

The UN sanctions regime may have little impact on such individuals, who transact their businesses mainly via third parties in exchange for minerals – completely sidestepping mainstream banking in the process.

In an interview with an ISS researcher, a militia leader in Masisi Territory, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), expressed joy on being informed that his name was mentioned in a UN Group of Experts Report for recruitment and use of child soldiers. The militant leader retorted, ‘Oh, so even the UN now knows me? That means my group is becoming famous.’

African countries are increasingly gaining the capacity to produce ammunition

This category of embargo violators is different from external networks of arms brokers or influential political actors and entities, with the ability to run bank accounts and purchase property. For the latter category, UN sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes can be effective.

Thirdly, African countries are increasingly gaining the capacity to produce ammunition, while others are producing arms. Currently there does not seem to be a link between arms embargoes and the quest by African states to develop domestic arms production capacity.

However, some analysts argue that such intentions are partly motivated by the desire of potential targets of arms embargoes to protect themselves from any future sanctions, and that over time, the proliferation of domestic arms production will erode the effectiveness of arms embargoes.

One can conclude that sanctions do not operate in isolation, and that their failure or success depends on many factors. Despite the challenges, arms embargoes remain one of the most effective measures for maintaining or restoring peace and security – notably when applied as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peacemaking.

Sanctions are therefore not meant to be punitive, but are rather a means of correcting behaviour designed to support governments and regions working towards a peaceful transition. 

As a Congolese government official monitoring the arms embargo in Goma in the DRC put it, arms embargoes are a good idea, but ‘how can we ensure their success in Congo when illicit brokers and militias trade openly – oblivious to sanctions? Perhaps Africa should seek ways of enforcing these embargoes at a continental level?’

The AU may have to analyse the effects of arms embargoes more broadly to map out the systemic nature of arms flows and related sanctions violations. This could inform a structured approach to ensure that the good intentions of the UN, and its sanctions regimes, are effectively implemented. Until then, the challenge remains.

Nelson Alusala, Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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