Business is business. That's the saying and that must have been the thinking as the ship with 77 tons of weapons and ammunition left port in China. Rocket launchers, automatic weapons and grenades, belts and belts of ammo —all bound for Zimbabwe. Business is business after all and Zimbabwe is simply a trusted trading partner for the People's Republic of China. The shipment of small arms and ammunition was both "prudent and responsible" as a transaction according to the Chinese government official asked to comment recently. You see there was some question, some concern as to how these arms would be used out there among the international community.
Not in China though.
So what if the massive shipment of weapons was being supplied to a nation that wasn't at war or confronting any real security threat from a neighboring country? So what if the the guns set sail even as the government of Robert Mugabe "prepared" for national elections —as it had a long history of "preparing"—with brutal crackdowns on opposition political parties?
Business is business.
The arms sale deal was concluded in January. The shipment left China in March, and at first, as the the guns and ammo arrived in South Africa, the government there seemed to agree —that business was indeed business. Defense Secretary January Masilela commented that there was nothing irregular about the "transaction between two sovereign nations." There was no basis in international law for South Africa to interfere.
Everything fitted into an elegant sequence. The Zimbabwe elections were "prepared" for and even as the results "remained pending" the weapons were on their way.
Then something strange happened. The guns were set to arrive in the port of Durban in South Africa and though the government found no basis for action to bar the shipment, the dock workers had. They found a moral basis for just such an action. Aware of the tensions surrounding the Zimbabwe elections, responding to the call of dissident clergy and political activists throughout the region, dock workers of SATAWU, The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union announced that they would not unload the shipment of weapons bound for Robert Mugabe and his repressive regime. The arms would have to enter the continent through some other port. The ship would simply have to turn around. Ultimately the South African government came round to share this stance. The government of Zambia followed suit and announced that the shipment would not enter the African continent through their ports either.
The result: If the People's Republic of China must conduct its business with the Republic of Zimbabwe, they're going to have to fly the weapons in. They might end up costing a little more this way.
Oh, well —business is business.
There is something heartening about this story. The way activists and dock workers were able to find a means to act in solidarity with democratic reformers in a neighboring country. The way they advanced a truly international vision of human rights even while their governments, at least at first, failed to do the same. That's the half full part of the story's cup.
There's also an empty half.
This month a 28 nation panel will reconvene to review a proposed international treaty to regulate the trade of small arms. This is an agreement that has been in the excruciating process of drafting and negotiation for years. The agreement as it was most recently shaped and voted upon in 2006 would have barred China from concluding such an arms sale to such a country as Zimbabwe with such an extensively documented record of human rights abuses. Their continued "business" with Sudan as it represses and abuses Darfur would be facing sanction as well. The responsibilities of third party nations acting as go betweens for transport or to circumvent U.N. embargo actions would have been addressed through the treaty. South Africa would have had not only a basis but an obligation to "interfere" in the transaction.
The treaty sought to advance a fairly simple principle, one that has informed the efforts to control nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction for quite some time, the notion that governments must take responsibility for all the weapons they sell.
In 2006 there was real momentum behind the effort to enact a meaningful international agreement. At a specially convened U.N. conference the International Action Network on Small Arms, Oxfam and Amnesty International joined in proposing the Global Principles for Small Arms Sales. The United Kingdom advanced proposals in keeping with the Global Principles and 11 different African nations signed on. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian designer of the gun that bears his name, forwarded a statement to the U.N. conference expressing his concern at the widespread use of small weapons such as his AK rifle and voicing support for efforts at control.
But in the end the 2006 conference concluded with only a resolve to continue talking —another conference in January of this year, again this month and again in November, and perhaps a report to the U.N. sometime before the end of the year. There was one key player in the trade of international arms who managed to derail all talk of a binding treaty. Even the U.N. resolution, supported by more than 150 nations, that only called for more negotiation on a potential agreement was opposed by that one nation —the United States.
"We don't see any need for treaties or agreements coming out of this." —so said the U.S. Ambassador at the time, John Bolton.
$4 billion dollars a year is spent in the global trade of small arms. Estimates are that about $1 billion of that is comprised of the illegal trade that arms brutal and repressive paramilitaries around the globe, that arms the militias in Somalia and marauders in Darfur, that arms the Taliban, al-Qaeda and insurgency forces throughout Iraq, that arms Robert Mugabe's henchman army as it punishes democracy in Zimbabwe. Still the Bush administration informs the American public and the entire world community that there is "no need for treaties or agreements."
This action —or should I say "non-action"?— won John Bolton and the Bush administration some applause from groups like The National Rifle Association —“on principle.” There are those who don't want to see “treaties or agreements” that could give rise to restrictive policies that might curb private ownership rights anywhere around the world —there are those who argue that privately born small arms serve to protect human rights. This is how a private citizenry opposes a repressive regime after all.
That's the theory anyway.
The fact that just the opposite is the case in Robert Mugabe's Zimabawe, just the opposite in the deserts of Darfur, and in the shooting galleries of Baghdad —that might confound the theory with a sorry dose of reality, with the very plain connection between blood on the streets and the smoking barrel of a gun.
The two halves of the cup, one full, one empty. For those with their blind ideological theories and those who would see guns for a despot as mere commerce, there is the answer of those like the dock workers of Durban and those who have worked tirelessly for years to curb the flow of guns into troubled regions.
There's a quote that comes to mind. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said it.
"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."
Maybe that’s the hopeful half of this story —a South African government that got out of the way and ultimately followed the lead of its people. With new meetings scheduled this month and again this November, with the task at hand once again of forging a meaningful small arms trade treaty, we just might have that chance here at home —to get our own government out of our way —there may be just that chance.