South Africa takes fire for arms sales to blacklisted nations

A new report finds that the government of South Africa has made $1.7 billion in arms sales over the past decade to 58 blacklisted countries that do not meet South Africa's own criteria for arms customers, including those with poor human rights records or ongoing internal conflicts.

Tony Karumba/AP
Illegal fire arms are burnt in Nairobi on March 24, as part of a campaign by the Kenyan government to mop-up illicit small arms and light weapons that are at the center of increasing violent crime in Kenya and Africa.

South Africa, which has been winning applause for its hosting of the 2010 World Cup, is now coming under fire for another success: global arms sales.

According to the South African watch group, Ceasefire Campaign, South African arms merchants have sold $1.7 billion worth of weapons in the past decade to “problematic” countries that are either involved in internal conflicts or with poor human rights records. The arms sales would appear to be in violation of South African law, which prohibits the sale of arms to countries that are on United Nations embargo lists, have poor human rights records, or that are involved in conflicts.

“These arms can be used by countries to further deteriorate those human rights, or used in local conflicts, or they can be used in countries that have poor controls over what is going to happen to those arms in the future,” says Rob Thomson, a member of the steering committee for the Johannesburg-based Ceasefire Campaign.

"As a country, we passed this act, and it was seen as part of a new South Africa that would be a responsible player on the international stage with regards to the matter of arms,” says Mr. Thomson. “But now, we seem to have ignored that responsibility.”

South Africa is, of course, just one of many arms merchants in the world. The United States dwarfs all others, selling $15 billion in arms in 2009, and many of the US’s top customers are the same “problematic” countries cited in the Ceasefire Campaign report. But South Africa’s role as an arms dealer conflicts with its aspirations to be a problem solver in Africa, a voice of the developing world, a champion of human rights.

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According to the Ceasefire Campaign report, South Africa sold weapons to 58 countries between 2002 and 2009 that failed to meet the criteria of South African law in one way or another, including Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. But the lion’s share went to five countries -- India, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia – that either have ongoing internal conflicts, poor human rights records, or poor control over their purchased arms.

“Arms are not potatoes. The reason we have an act is because they can’t be sold like potatoes,” Mr. Thomson told a press conference in Johannesburg. “We are selling more arms to the worst countries than to countries that pass the criteria. More than half of the arms to these failing countries are significant sensitive equipment.”

Ceasefire Campaign tried to obtain information on South African arms sales through official government channels, but after meeting resistance, it obtained that information through a combination of sources, including United Nations, the South African state arms manufacturer Denel, and the Bonn International Centre for Conversion, a research group on the arms trade.

South Africa’s Justice Minister Jeff Radebe dismissed the Ceasefire report.


“These allegations are not breaking any new ground,” says Mr. Radebe in statement to the press. Every arms transaction is “subject to a meticulous process of scrutiny and investigation,” by South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, which Radebe chairs. He says the committee was “satisfied that all decisions taken on all transactions were based on aggregate consideration of all principles reflected in our law, including our international obligations on arms transfer.”


“South Africa will continue to subscribe to the international agenda of responsible trade in arms,” Mr. Radebe says in his statement.


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