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Illicit Arms Trade (Africa)

Volume 602: debated on Monday 16 November 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Algeria, Tunisia, Burundi, Angola, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique —all countries in Africa, and all countries in which ongoing conflict, fuelled by the ready availability of small arms and light weapons in particular, continues to claim lives; but—and this is important—the story that informs this debate, which I am grateful to have secured, does not end there.

For across Africa, and most notably in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, armed violence outside conflict—all too often untouched by law enforcement—has reached epidemic proportions, destroying communities, hampering development efforts and undermining efforts to improve the lives of many of the poorest and most vulnerable in our world.

With UK aid pouring into the continent alongside that of our partners who are meeting their commitments, we can and should ask why and what the Government can do and are doing to prevent the flow of illicit arms that fuel this tale of sorrow, death and destruction in a continent to which significant development aid is dedicated. On all these issues, I hope the Minister can be clear with the House tonight.

Two things that the Government have been clear about: first, the obligation of this country and our partners to meet the target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on international aid, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is critically important for British security; and secondly, the profound and negative consequences for individuals, societies and, yes, even the citizens of this country if we fail to tackle, at source, the endemic poverty which fuels violence, extremism and hardship, and which ends up manifesting itself on the streets of western capitals in the manner that we saw in Paris last week.

Let us be very clear, as I was on the last occasion I troubled the House on a debate on the Adjournment this late into the evening, when I spoke of the effects of corruption in the developing world and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular: if we fail to tackle the root causes which lead to the disfranchisement and extremism of whole sections of this ever-closer world in which we live, that will end up affecting us just as much as it affects those whose lives are poorer, meaner and harder than anything that we or our constituents ever have to contemplate.

The fight against the illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons, particularly in Africa, is part of that fight. As the UN Secretary-General pointed out when the matter was debated in the Security Council in May,

“Over the last decade, the world has been afflicted by over 250 conflicts. While no two have been the same, the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons, and their ammunition, is common to all. More than 50,000 men, women and children are killed each year as a direct consequence, and the number of those displaced has reached levels not seen since the Second World War. Civilians, including children, suffer the most.”

The ease of access to illicit small arms in particular—a glut at present, as recent upgrades to assault weapons have led to the ready availability of still lethal arms that have been superseded, but whose price on black markets has fallen considerably—thus undermines much of the effort that the international community puts into ensuring stability and sustainable development.

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way and indicating before the debate that he would be willing to do so, and I congratulate him on securing a very important debate. He will be aware that there was a debate in Westminster Hall recently on the legal arms trade. It was well attended. In that debate, the point was made that the arms trade is always a choice, not a necessity. It stands to reason that many weapons traded illegally must have had a legitimate point of origin or point of manufacture. Does he agree that the Government must continue to work towards their commitments in the arms trade treaty and encourage their global counterparts, especially in Africa, to do likewise?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will know that we have signed and ratified the arms trade treaty, and that a number of countries have done the same, though it remains for many other countries to do so. I am sure he would join me—this is what I think his intervention is really about—in encouraging the Minister to ensure that others sign up to the treaty, as 48 countries have without yet having ratified it, and ratify the treaty as well.

The point that I was coming to is the need to ensure sustainability and stability in our world, especially in Africa. Across Africa, a politician who loses an election, or at least fails to stuff the ballot boxes sufficiently, hands out weapons to their supporters. A politician who experiences disenchantment at the hands of those supporters as a result of economic failure, all too often caused by corruption, fabricates an enemy and deflects criticism by directing armed violence against the scapegoats created. If someone sees the wealth of others and wonders why their own life is mean and brutish, they arm themselves and use violence to take what they should have. All that is made possible by the ready availability of arms too often diverted from the stockpiles of state actors without the means properly to control them.

The electoral violence experienced in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 and 2011 is as good an example as exists. Following the disputed presidential election of 2010, supporters of both rival candidates armed themselves, a crisis ensued, thousands died and the UN and its peacekeepers had to become involved. Côte d’Ivoire is a long way from the United Kingdom, but notably, in both 2011 and 2012, this country and our allies across Europe saw a marked increase in asylum claims and illegal immigration by Ivorians. What goes on in Africa matters directly here—maybe not immediately, but inevitably in due course.

Monsieur Diakité, the president of the west African network on small arms and himself an Ivorian, told the United Nations of his experience:

“I was peacefully sleeping in my room at the University of Bouaké, where I was in my first year of law school, when I was abruptly awakened by weapon fire from all sides. Some frustrated individuals who had been denied Ivorian citizenship had decided to take up arms—too readily available—to make their claim. We were terrorized for days, hunted like animals, without water, without food, without receiving help, constantly living in the fear of being killed. And we were not the only ones. The rest of the inhabitants suffered as well, regardless of age, sex or status. We all paid the price, but for what? And why? When I returned to the neighbourhood, one of my neighbours was forced, in order to feed her family, to yield to the intimidation and threats of armed individuals. I will never forget the tears on her face depicting her pain and the shame of having been a victim of forced prostitution and rape.”

The truth of the matter is that the availability of illicit small arms across Africa is such a problem that it has become part of the way of life. The question for the Minister, as I have hinted, is what he will do about it given the billions of pounds that British taxpayers pour into development aid in the continent with the best of motives, which are naturally undermined by the threat to stability and security that those arms pose.

I have used the Ivorian crisis as an example and it is a good one, but I have mentioned it for another very good reason. The arms and ammunition that have fuelled the violence over the last decade in that country have come not just from illegal sources internationally, but from so-called leakages from the stockpiles of state actors and the abandoned arsenals made readily available following the fall of al-Gaddafi in Libya.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on bringing this very important subject to the House for its consideration. I have friends who are involved in security in the middle east and who have been active in Libya. They tell me that Libya is awash with illegal arms and that some of those arms have made their way to France. I am not saying that they were involved in the terrorist attacks over the past few days, but I tell the House that some weapons from Libya have made their way to France and are in the hands of terrorists. Does he agree that we need to put pressure on the Libyan authorities, such as they are, to use what power they have to ensure that the illegal trail of arms is curtailed?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, to which I will turn shortly. The arms that were in Libya have been available to terrorists not only in west and sub-Saharan Africa, but across the world. Indeed, it seems that those arms may well have been used in Paris and elsewhere in terrorist attacks. Today, those arsenals continue to flow into west Africa. They fuel terrorism in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. The borders are porous.

There are three specific questions that the Minister will wish to consider answering when he replies to this debate. First, what are the Government doing to make sure that no more of these weapons reach sub-Saharan Africa? Secondly, what is being done to deprive terrorists, in particular Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, of the weapons they have already got their hands on? Thirdly, what strategy do the Government intend to deploy to ensure that next time a heavily armed regime is overthrown in Africa or elsewhere, its weapons do not find their way into the hands of those who would harm either us or their fellow countrymen?

In truth, however, although these are specific issues on which the Minister will wish to reflect, there is a much broader question that he needs to answer: what is being done, and what more can be done, to stop the flow of illicit light weapons and small arms more generally? What efforts are the Government making to disrupt supplies internationally and deal with the glut of assault weapons to which I have already referred—a glut that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has made clear, may well have made it easier for the terrorists who carried out the attacks in Paris last week? What support—both direct budget support and technical assistance—are the Government giving to countries across Africa to ensure that arms and arsenals are properly protected and do not suffer the leakage rates, estimated to be as high as 5% annually, that place small arms into the hands of black marketeers, criminals and terrorists?

The Minister will wish to discuss those issues, in so far as he has not already done so, with his counterparts in the Department for International Development. Indeed, he will have to do so, for hidden among the probably too numerous sustainable development goals to which we and the rest of the world have just signed up, he will find in goal 16 the need to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. That cannot happen without the scourge of highly mobile weapons that kill being removed from circulation, in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. It certainly cannot happen without action being taken to suppress an illicit trade that places light weapons and small arms into the hands of any disgruntled faction or individual minded to take steps to acquire them.

Manufacturers and brokers operating at the borders of the law, if not beyond it, but at present able to buy their way out of any difficulties they face, must be dealt with. So too, as I have already said, must the security of arsenals and stockpiles. Again, lest it be thought that this does not matter to us here, let me say that it does. It is the taxes of our constituents that fund the international aid that the UK deploys; it is their security that demands that we tackle the root causes of migration and terrorism; and it is their future that mandates that we avert the sorts of crises that fuel the scourge of terrorism threatening us all.

I want to end my remarks with a reference to another country that should be in the headlines of the world press but is at present largely not, although for perfectly understandable reasons, given the events of the past week: Burundi. There is growing evidence, as I told the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary last week, that if a genocide principally involving the use of small arms against civilians has not yet started, it is on the cards. Libération, the French newspaper, has said that it has started already. The President of the Senate of Burundi has reportedly called on supporters of the Government to “pulverise” and “exterminate” opponents who he described as “good only for dying”. Cockroach metaphors familiar to those who recall the Rwandan genocide of 1994 have been used. The ultimatum given to opponents of the Government to disarm and fall into line ended yesterday.

That this matters—not least because once a civil war starts, as the experience of Rwanda teaches us, it is almost impossible to stop—is obvious, but it also matters in the context of this debate, because Burundi, with its history of past conflicts, is awash with small arms, despite past efforts to ensure the disarmament of the civilian population. Yesterday, according to the mayor of the capital, Bujumbura, his house was attacked with grenades and automatic weapons. There were other attacks across the capital and, reportedly, four deaths, all from small arms or grenades.

Not only is Burundi in a bad way, as the Minister no doubt knows, but it is in a place that, if the violence does get worse following President Nkurunziza’s decision to secure a third term on the face of things barred by the constitution, is likely to descend into armed violence and humanitarian crisis at speed—and if Burundi, then maybe Rwanda, and maybe, given porous borders, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The real point for tonight’s debate, however—separate, I accept, from the need to act over Burundi recognised last week by the Security Council—is that if the country was not awash with the illicit arms that the five outbreaks of mass violence since independence from Belgium have ensured, we would have to worry a lot less about the current situation.

It is those illicit arms that fuel violence, threaten civil society, undermine development aid, drive migration and render us here in the United Kingdom a lot less safe. For all those reasons, the Government need to be clear what they are doing and to focus on this issue rather more than I suspect is at present the case. I look forward to hearing from the Minister tonight that that will happen.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on securing this debate. He is, if he does not mind my using this word, an Afrophile—a lover of all things Africa. He regularly speaks up for Africa in this Chamber, be it on sustainable development goals or on women’s rights, in a recent debate on corruption, and today on countering the illicit arms trade in Africa—all issues that have a very direct impact on the people of Africa. Small arms in Africa are far too prevalent: estimates of over 2 billion being available are about right. In fact, every minute a person is killed in Africa as a result of small arms weapons, two thirds of whom are not in official conflict zones. My hon. and learned Friend asked a number of excellent questions that I will attempt to summarise and respond to.

As the House is only too aware, conflict and proliferation of arms continue to bring immense human suffering around the world, and that is particularly true on the continent of Africa. This is a global problem, though, that needs a global solution. That is why the Government worked hard with international partners to secure the arms trade treaty in 2013. This landmark agreement has undoubtedly made it harder for illegal arms to reach the hands of criminals, terrorists and other organisations. The Government are focused on ensuring that the treaty delivers the necessary step change in the international system governing controls on conventional arms, as well as arms traded illicitly. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) eloquently pointed out the connections between the legal trade and the illicit trade, and more can be done on the connections between the two.

We have already seen African leadership in pushing forward the universal implementation of the arms trade treaty. As we have heard, some countries have signed up to but not fully ratified the process, and we encourage those that have not already signed up to that to do so. Some positive things have been happening more recently. For example, in February Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo came together for the first time to discuss illicit weapons and their transit across their borders. I will come on to answer some of the specific questions put to me on Burundi. In relation to the support for the arms trade treaty in the financial year 2014-15, the Government set aside £350,000 for projects to assist countries in signing and ratifying. We contributed £150,000 towards a conference in August this year that helped states to look at the issue of signing and ratification. I am pleased that over 20 African nations did sign, including Mali and Nigeria. Her Majesty’s Government stand ready to offer our expertise and, where possible and appropriate, to assist any state that wants to accede but currently lacks the capacity to do so.

My hon. and learned Friend raised specific concerns about, notably, Nigeria and Somalia. He is right that we must help to fight the atrocities of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. We recognise the recent successes by Nigeria and its neighbours, but equally there have been some horrific recent attacks in Abuja and in the north of Cameroon. That is a sobering reminder that Boko Haram still represents a significant threat that is made worse by the easy availability of small arms and fuelled by criminality, kidnapping and the illegal arms trade. That is why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have underlined to President Buhari the UK’s commitment to increasing support for Nigeria in our unwavering resolve to help in the fight against terrorism in that part of Africa. We are also expanding our military and counter-terrorism support in Nigeria, supporting a regional taskforce to tackle the insurgents, and providing humanitarian development support to those affected by violence.

Hon. Members will be aware of the United Kingdom’s role in Somalia, and particularly the Prime Minister’s leadership on the Somalian issue. As recently as 26 October, we authored a UN resolution extending the arms embargo on Somalia. The UN and the EU play a significant role in these arms embargoes, as does the African Union. Those embargoes, particularly in Somalia, will restrict the flow of arms to al-Shabaab in the region. They will also allow us to support the legitimate security forces of the federal Government in receiving arms. If there are arms embargoes in certain countries, it is essential that they do not get in the way of the provision of small arms to the federal Government and security services. The embargoes will also allow the brave men and women serving the African Union mission in Somalia to continue to diminish and degrade al-Shabaab’s grip on the area.

Stability before elections is crucial to future peace in Somalia, so control over illegal weapons is critical. Has the Minister had any direct contact with the Somali Government about their control of port facilities?

Last year I met the then Somali Prime Minister and a number of Cabinet Ministers in Lancaster House, where we discussed our support for the Somali national army. Earlier today I met our ambassador to Mogadishu, who is doing an excellent job. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), recently visited Mogadishu—I was going to accompany him, but was unable to do so—to look at the issues, particularly those relating to armaments. We will continue that ongoing dialogue with Somalia.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned Burundi. Alas, the situation there is incredibly troubling and I cannot offer him enormous amounts of reassurance about the stability of that area. When I took on the role of Foreign Office Minister a year ago, my one-page briefing on all the issues in the countries that I look at, including across Africa, highlighted Burundi as the country that could most easily slip into civil war. Sadly, the situation has not changed much in the past year, despite our efforts. In many ways, things have gone backwards.

If we do not ensure that Burundi stabilises in the next few weeks, there is a real risk that it will descend into civil war and that the United Nations and perhaps this country will have to get involved. Is it not time for the Minister to make it clear to his Government colleagues that we have to do something before it is too late, so that we do not end up with another genocide of the type that happened in Rwanda in the mid-1990s?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right: there needs to be a genuine, inclusive dialogue that respects the Arusha agreement and that has the consent of all Burundian people. On Sunday week, I spoke to a number of key players. That was the night of the key turning point, when the President made a statement saying, “Unless we have control, terrible things will happen.” My hon. and learned Friend referred to the language used, which was reminiscent of what happened before the civil war in Rwanda and which threatened violence. I and a number of international colleagues talked to the key interlocutors, including the vice-president of the African Union and the special envoy to the African Union. I also spoke to the Foreign Minister of Burundi and there was some rowing back on that language. However, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, there was still violence and the situation is still very much a tinderbox in a place where non-governmental organisations say it is possible to get a Kalashnikov for $20. There are always going to be lots of problems in addition to the ethnic dimension.

We are worried about the hardening of the rhetoric. It is of deep concern. We will continue to work with other parties, particularly the South Africans, Ugandans and Tanzanians, in reinforcing the message in Burundi, working through our high commission in Rwanda.

Elsewhere across Africa, the UK is working through more traditional measures of arms control. For example, the Sahel—long characterised by its porous borders and its mobile trading populations—in many ways provides ideal conditions for the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons to thrive. The improvement in weapons and munitions security in the Sahel has therefore become a priority in stabilising the region. We must provide better co-ordination within and between Sahel countries, improving technical capability, but also working with external partners to restrict weaponry on the ground.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned Libya. We continue to urge all parties in Libya to endorse and sign the Libyan political agreement as soon as possible. It is vital that a national code is established as soon as possible. That remains the most effective way to tackle that terrorist threat and the traffickers of arms and munitions, and to bring peace and security to Libya. It is true that some arms have already left Libya. I would be interested to speak privately to him about his comments about arms coming from Libya into Europe. However, I would point out that there is a pretty easy availability of arms from the Balkans and ex-Soviet countries, so I suspect that is the principal source of arms, especially with the slightly more porous borders than we are used to. Given the Schengen agreement within Europe, it is relatively easy for arms in Europe to be moved across. The EU will certainly need to look at that again while the security situation is as tense as it is.

We need to increase our pool of capability at African Union and United Nations level, making sure that our peacekeepers, collectively throughout the world, have world-class training. In some places, that will be by the UK providing financial support, which makes their work possible; in some cases, it will be by providing individual support. We are supporting security sector reform to help African countries to tackle smugglers, criminals and terrorists. That is primarily through the work of the British peace support teams in eastern and southern Africa, where we are deploying capability and accountable leadership for the longer term. We are leading in stabilisation, security and justice programmes across the continent.

All that of course sits alongside our international development work. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned Côte d’lvoire, which is perhaps a good place for me to draw together my conclusions. He said that what happens there can have a direct impact on the UK. Illicit arms in Africa can have a direct impact on the UK so there are good reasons for us to deal with this problem, both because it is the right thing to do for African countries and because it is the right thing to do for the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.