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Hunger in the Sahel and international arms control: what’s the link?

Posted by Martin Butcher Policy Adviser, Arms Campaign

3rd May 2012

Pushing a barrel of water home, during drought in Mali. Credit: Dave Clark/Oxfam

With the launch of The Devil is in the Detail, Oxfam's first in a series of five papers to be released in the run up to the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations in July, Oxfam's arms trade policy adviser Martin Butcher discusses the links between Libya's arms race and hunger in the Sahel.



The growing food crisis provoked by drought in the Sahel is affecting millions of people. This crisis has been deepened by the conflict in Mali, sparked by the proliferation of arms from Libya in the wake of the fall of Colonel Gadhafi. Some 200,000 Malians have fled from the fighting, which engulfed the whole of Northern Mali from January to March this year.

This situation of 'drought + conflict' is providing some harrowing evidence of the need for effective international control of the arms trade. Oxfam has worked for ten years on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), currently under negotiation at the United Nations.

Tuareg tribes

in northern Mali have refused to accept the authority of the Bamako government since independence in the 1960s, and their last rebellion ended in 2009 with Malian government forces victorious. But as the war in Libya turned against Colonel Gadhafi, Tuareg fighters from Libya's armed forces began to return home and formed the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The MNLA are much better armed than previous Tuareg fighters. Malian government forces have reported fighting against men armed with four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons or multiple rocket launchers, and Milan anti-tank missiles. The UN has said that substantial amounts of those kinds of heavy weapons, as well as thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, substantial quantities of semtex explosive, thousands of small arms and tonnes of ammunition and grenades have flowed into the Sahel from Libya. There are also persistent reports that MANPADS - single operator anti-aircraft missiles - have been smuggled out of Libya. The Libyan government had stockpiled some 40,000 of these weapons, and only 5,000 have been accounted for. Many were undoubtedly destroyed during NATO's bombing, but several thousand have probably been smuggled out of Libya to the Tuaregs, to terrorist groups, and into the region's black market for arms.

In addition to being better armed than ever before, the Tuareg fighters from the Libyan army are better trained and disciplined than rebels in the past. As the rebellion began, things went badly for government forces and on 21 March, army officers led by a Captain Sanogo, angered at being outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the MNLA, carried out a coup d'etat to overthrow President Toure. In the wake of the coup, all of northern Mali has fallen to the MNLA without serious fighting, and the Tuaregs declared the end of fighting and a free Azawad in early April.

In the South, the coup leaders are now working with ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and political figures in Mali to restore civilian government as soon as possible. While there is no fighting at present, interim President Traore (former speaker of the Malian parliament) has threatened to wage 'total war' on the north if the rebels do not submit to his authority. The army continues to call for more weapons. More fighting is likely in coming months.

How would an ATT help? For a start, in a situation like Mali, a treaty would cut off weapons heading for a conflict zone to encourage political negotiation. National legislation for Arms Trade Treaty implementation would require security sector reform and improve civilian control of the military, both vital areas of good governance that contribute to socio-economic development.

The ATT would provide simple rules, globally enforced, which would detail when an arms exporter could, and could not, send arms to a prospective buyer. If it was thought that the sale of arms might result in breaches of human rights or international humanitarian law; could damage socio-economic development of the recipient state; provoke or prolong a conflict; or lead to diversion to terrorist or into the black market - such a sale would be banned. This would apply to all conventional arms and equipment. While individual countries have such export control policies, there is no such global regulation.

It is likely that, had an ATT been in place in the past twenty years, Libya would have been unable to build up the excessive stocks of arms that are now fuelling conflict in the Sahel. And, given the transparency and reporting mechanism that will be built into the treaty, much more would now be known about just what those stockpiles contained, and where they were stored. This would have allowed effective international action to contain them in the wake of the war.

The Sahel risks being trapped in a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of hunger, conflict and bad governance. That cycle can be interrupted at various points by action at both national and international level - building food security, fast and effective aid, and passing an ATT that will prevent the kinds of disastrous spillover Mali has suffered from the fall of Colonel Gadhafi.

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Blog post written by Martin Butcher

Policy Adviser, Arms Campaign

More by Martin Butcher

Martin Butcher