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Somalia, where a UN arms embargo failed

Somalian military is under-equipped due to sanctions, a major burden in its fight against al-Shabab.
Last modified: 21 Mar 2013 11:54

The Somali government soldiers wiggling their toes in their open-toed sandals were clearly committed, but it was hard not to feel concerned as they stood in the shade before leaving on a foot-patrol in Maslah north of Mogadishu.

This is the new frontline in the government's fight against al-Shabab rebels. Before we left, I asked how many of the 30 soldiers in the unit had more than one magazine of ammunition. They all shook their heads.

Then I asked how many of them had their magazine full to its capacity of 30 rounds. They all shook their heads again.

I set off with them through the dusty afternoon light, with a prickly sense of anxiety along the back of my neck. In an ambush, each magazine would last less than three seconds with their weapons on automatic fire.

Arms embargo

The Somali National Army's 4th Brigade is walking proof of the unintended consequences of a badly thought-out attempt to control the flow of arms and ammunition.

In 1992, after the Somali government collapsed and rival warlords began to tear the country apart, the United Nations imposed what was supposed to be a comprehensive arms embargo on the country. It was hoped that the embargo would choke off military supplies and bring the bloodletting to a halt. 

More than 20 years of almost constant civil war later, it has become abundantly clear that the embargo catastrophically failed. In the later years of the war, when the rump of the government was struggling to hold the line against al-Shabab, the authorities repeatedly argued that the embargo only limited them from getting the tools they needed to defeat the rebels, without shutting down the black market for their enemies.

Of course there were legitimate reasons for keeping weapons out of the hands of the "government". In its early days, what passed as the national defence force usually looked and behaved more like just another militia than a legitimate, disciplined army. But the point remains: the embargo patently failed to shut down the illicit trade in arms and ammunition, particularly for rebel forces trying to seize control of the state. Weapons were freely available in Mogadishu's markets, and the conflict raged on for two decades.

In many ways, it is a sobering lesson for the negotiators now sitting in New York trying to reach agreement on a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty.

Tight controls

As it stands, the treaty places trade in weapons themselves under encouragingly tight controls. (There are still loopholes that need to be addressed, though the talks seem to be moving in the right direction.)

But the treaty shunts ammunition and spare parts to an annex with far loser restrictions. If those restrictions continue to allow a black market to flourish, the treaty fails, especially in places like Somalia.

Here, the government estimates that there are four or five assault rifles to every household. If there production of AK-47s stopped today, there would still be more than enough of them to keep the conflict going for years.

But as the aid agency Oxfam rightly points out, an assault rifle without ammunition is just a heavy metal stick. 

So, the lesson of Somalia for the ATT negotiators is that any agreement that fails to control every aspect of the arms trade including ammunition is a wasted opportunity. 

The soldiers of the Somali army's 4th Division would prefer their enemies to have a tougher time getting rounds in their magazines than they do.