West African heads of state were due to adopt new, tougher rules on Wednesday to stop the proliferation of small arms that have fueled devastating conflicts in several countries in the region.
Regional block Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has drawn up a new convention that allows it to impose sanctions if member states fail to comply with restrictions on manufacturing and importing light weapons.
“The threats and challenges posed by proliferation of small arms as well as the activities of bandits have continued to pose serious threats to our sub-region,” Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told other heads of state from 16-member ECOWAS.
“We must take action at the sub-regional and national levels to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing, importation and exportation of small arms and light weapons.”
The convention is designed to replace a 1998 moratorium that was hard to enforce and has failed to stem the flow of light weapons in West Africa.
Under the new rules, ECOWAS could suspend loans or aid to member states that violate the convention and strip those countries of their voting rights within the block.
“Small arms are West Africa’s weapons of mass destruction,” said Baffour Amoa, chairman of the West African Action Network on Small Arms (WAANSA), according to a statement sent by British-based charity Oxfam.
“Signing and implementing this landmark convention, which has been fully supported by civil society in West Africa, would hold governments fully responsible for the cross-border traffic in arms that has fuelled decades of conflict in the sub-region.”
8 million weapons
The Oxfam statement said an estimated 8 million light weapons are in circulation across West Africa, crossing porous national borders to fuel crime and conflict, limiting the development of the world’s poorest sub-region.
The convention prohibits all international transfers of small arms within the sub-region, except when authorized by ECOWAS to meet legitimate defense or security needs, or for the purpose of peace-keeping missions.
It specifically bans transfers of weapons to “non-state actors,” or armed groups such as those that played a major role in civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
The convention also sets up a group of independent experts whose role is to monitor implementation and to report on any breach of the rules to the ECOWAS secretariat, which is in charge of initiating sanctions.
ECOWAS foreign ministers endorsed the convention at a meeting in the Nigerian capital on Tuesday and heads of state were due to sign it later on Wednesday at the end of a summit.