International Legal Affairs: Volume 1, Number 1

The 2005 Lion’s Gate film The Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, is well known in the international small arms industry.  Allegedly based upon the acts of former KGB major Viktor Bout, the movie makes a political statement against the international arms industry and claims that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) are the world’s leading arms suppliers.  Various political Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have added to the chorus, claiming that hundreds of thousands of people die each year due to the uncontrolled trade in small arms and light weapons by ruthless arms brokers – including actions depicted by The Lord of War character.  Yet, what the movie (and the NGOs that support “sensible” restrictions on the international arms trade) fail to acknowledge is that the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom already have strict requirements and limitations on the international small arms trade.  Make no mistake – efforts to limit the small arms trade could act as to reduce or eliminate the international small arms trade.

In 2006, the United Nations overwhelmingly voted to start work on the Arms Trade Treaty; an attempt to limit and control the arms trade via international law.  During the 2006 UN General Assembly, 153 nation-states voted to begin work on an Arms Trade Treaty.  Twenty-four states abstained from the vote, and only the United States voted against the measure.  Is this another case of American cowboys wanting their guns?  Not at all.  The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) threatens the international arms trade and the international shipment of small arms.  Working in support of the ATT, Amnesty International, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and Oxfam International have called for the prohibition of international transfers of conventional arms or ammunition where they will be used or are likely to be used for gross violations of international human rights law.

So far, so good… as long as you’re part of the international majority.  Take the recent conflict in Zimbabwe.  Although there is no UN-sponsored arms embargo on Zimbabwe, Chinese arms destined for Zimbabwe were blocked from delivery upon arriving in South Africa.  In April 2008, South African dockworkers refused to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying small arms destined for Zimbabwe.  The shipment allegedly included three million rounds of 7.62x39mm ammunition for AK47 rifles and 1,500 RPG-7 anti-tank weapons.  The shipment was to be unloaded at Durban, South Africa, and transported overland to land-locked Zimbabwe.  Initially, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the shipment, saying the arms sale was part of normal trade between two sovereign countries. In return, the Zimbabwe government defended its right to buy weapons from any legal source.

By all accounts, the transaction was above board and legal.  Nevertheless, South African dockworkers refused to unload the delivery, which lead to an international chorus condemning the Chinese and Zimbabwe governments.  On April 24, 2008, the Chinese company responsible for the ship announced that it was recalling its vessel because it could not deliver the shipment.  In this case, international pressure curtailed a legal shipment of arms intended for a volatile part of the world.  An international treaty was not required to achieve the desired result.

What about Viktor Bout?  Would an international arms treaty have prevented Mr. Bout from his alleged illegal acts?  Recent allegations assert that Mr. Bout funneled arms to the UNITA rebels in Angola, rebels in Congo, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  News reports rarely report that Mr. Bout also assisted the United States military deliver legitimate arms to Afghan rebels, or that Mr. Bout shuttled U.S. made arms to Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi Army.  Clearly, many of Mr. Bout’s transactions were legitimate.  The illegal acts committed by Mr. Bout are already illegal under international law; a new arms trade treaty would not have curtailed Mr. Bout’s illegal behavior.

What about legitimate arms deliveries that are intercepted during shipment?  The arms industry is rife with examples of shipments being seized in Hong Kong, Germany, and Italy as alleged illegal arms shipments, despite legitimate and legal documentation to the contrary.  In many cases, the seized shipment – despite being legal and legitimate international commerce – is destroyed, resulting in a total loss to the buyer.  In a highly publicized case, a U.S. company was accused of illegal international arms dealing.  The shipment of firearms was legal, but was intercepted for alleged discrepancies in the shipping documents.  In this case, the arms were eventually released and allowed passage to the United States.  Had the proposed Arms Trade Treaty been in place, the outcome may not have been the same.   A proposed aspect of the ATT would limit arms shipments where there the arms may “contribute to an existing pattern of violent crime.”  In the event that Italian authorities determined that the U.S.-bound rifles may contribute to violent crime in the United States, the ship could have been diverted and the cargo ultimately destroyed.

What can be done?  To date, nothing has been implemented on an international level to restrict the trade in small arms.  Efforts are underway within the United States to combat onerous and unduly burdensome restrictions to the international small arms trade.  Interested individuals may follow the progress of the ATT via the U.N. website at  Ultimately, it may be impossible for individuals to contest the ATT due to the size and political clout of existing NGOs.  Nevertheless, those active in the international small arms trade should be aware of ongoing political discussions and pending treaties as they apply to the industry.

Future articles within this column will focus on aspects of sovereign and international law as it applies to the small arms trade.  The author welcomes comments or suggestions on relevant topics related to the international small arms trade and international law.