No More 'Ships of Shame' to Africa

July 14, 2011

By Alaphia Zoyab, Online Communities Officer at Amnesty International.

UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

At a meeting with NGOs on the side-lines of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations in New York, China made the claim that it does not transfer arms to conflict states in Africa. That claim is simply not true and China has clearly forgotten about the notorious ‘Ship of Shame’. We are happy to remind them.

In 2008 a Chinese ship MV An Yue Jiang arrived in Durban in South Africa with a deadly cargo of more than 3000 cases of arms. The cases included nearly 3 million rounds of rifle ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and mortar launchers, all exported by Poly Technologies Inc. of Beijing. This cargo was destined for the Zimbabwean Defence Force.

This incident took place shortly after the disputed Zimbabwean elections of 2008 when senior personnel in the Zimbabwean army were beating, torturing and killing anyone suspected of voting for opposition parties.

That was precisely the time this dangerous Chinese cargo would have made it to Zimbabwe had ordinary people in South Africa not stood up in protest. When the ship docked in Durban, trade unions there refused to offload the cargo and even appealed to transport workers in other African countries to do the same. Religious leaders and lawyers in South Africa won a court order to stop the cargo. Thanks to these actions, there was an international outcry and their counterparts in Mozambique, Namibia and Angola also turned away the Chinese ship. In the end, although some cargo was offloaded in Luanda in Angola, the ship reportedly returned with its military cargo to China.

Speaking at a packed event co-hosted by Amnesty International at the UN headquarters yesterday, Seydi Gassama, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Senegal said,

“Illicit arms are wreaking havoc in Africa. Only if states commit to transparency in the form of stronger compliance measures will the Arms Trade Treaty improve the lives of men and women in the continent.”

If States commit to compliance and enforcement under the ATT then they will have to annually report on such transfers and import and export transactions. “This transparency will help strengthen the feeling of trust amongst States and diminish the risk of illicit transfers and enable monitoring by civil society,” said Seydi Gassama.

But many States are saying they are unable to gather and report on such transactions because of lack of capacity and the “administrative burden”. But fact is that every State has a customs department that is already gathering this information. Their obligation under an ATT should be to publish this data on international transfers in an annual report.

Only if States commit to greater transparency will they be more accountable for their arms trading and transfers and thus better ensure our collective security. The small Caribbean states, long-suffering victims of armed violence and many European States are showing much greater enthusiasm for transparent reporting than any of the larger States such as India, China, Russia or the US. Many are still undecided. If States dilute transparency and accountability under the ATT, they will be forsaking their responsibility to save lives in Africa and the rest of the world.

Amnesty International will be blogging through the week-long deliberations on the Arms Trade Treaty taking place at the UN in New York.