Diplomacy, other issues trump rights in SA arms exports: ISS

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National and diplomatic considerations often trump human rights protection criteria when defence exports are concerned. That’s a view at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)
in Pretoria and come after disarmament lobby group Ceasefire Campaign last month alleged half of South Africa’s defence exports in the past decade went to some 58 countries that failed to meet at least one of the criteria required by the National Conventional Arms Control Act.

A Senior Research Fellow in the ISS’ Arms Management Programme says this is in part because the National Conventional Arms Control (NCAC) Act “does not require the government to adhere to specific and quantifiable human rights benchmarks.” There is also no clear prioritisation of criteria within the Act.

The researcher, Guy Lamb, writes the law requires the NCAC Committee to safeguard the national security interests of South Africa and its allies; avoid arms transfers to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms; adhere to international law, norms and practices and South Africa’s international obligations and commitments, including UN Security Council arms embargoes; and avoid the export of arms that may be used for purposes other than the legitimate defence and security needs of the importing government.
“Indeed, a number of States to which South Africa exports arms arguably do not adhere to the same high standards of human rights protection that are enshrined in the South African Constitution, Lamb says. “The reasons for this state of affairs are not easily palpable, but appear to relate to the nature of the arms control legislation, the imperatives of South Africa’s national interest and foreign policy, as well as dynamics within the domestic and international arms industry.
“The NCAC Act does not require the government to adhere to specific and quantifiable human rights benchmarks. The human rights criteria in the Act are entirely subjective, reinforced by the requirement that arms export authorisations be made on a case-by-case basis. The advantage of this approach is that the government is in a position to consider current and relevant human rights information prior to making a decision on whether to grant an export permit or not. However, a key disadvantage is that there may be significant inconsistencies in South Africa’s arms exports in terms of the respect for and protection of human rights,” he continues.
“There is also no clear prioritisation of criteria within the Act. This can be problematic where the South African government has strong national and/or diplomatic interests to grant an export permit, but the recipient government does not adhere to a high standard of human rights protection. In such circumstances, human rights considerations may play second fiddle to national and diplomatic interests. This was arguably the case in the incident involving the granting of the permit for arms to be transported to Zimbabwe in 2008.
“For decades the South African government has invested substantial resources in the domestic arms industry. Since the 1980s, due to shrinking demand for defence products and services in South Africa, a key strategy for the industry survival has been to target the export market. However, the South African industry is a minnow compared to the industries of the United States, the European Union and China. The consequences of this are that the South African arms industry often has limited options as to which States it can sell its products and services. Added to this, States with exemplary internal human rights records (that are not engaged in a foreign war) are not major arms consumers.”

This is, however, not strictly true. Several such states are major contributors to peacekeeping operations. A lok at the Interntional Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2010 Military Balance publication shows about five United Nations and at least two African Union peace missions active on the continent. But it also shows 34 of Africa’s 54 states providing personnel to these missions.

Lamb suggests individuals and organisations concerned with the protection of human rights may be able to mitigate the trend that sees this consideration play second fiddle. “Options include strategic public pressure and lobbying of relevant Members of Parliament to hold the Executive to account on its approval of arms export applications. The enactment of amended arms control legislation that allows for broader public scrutiny of South Africa arms exports has been indefinitely delayed. Campaigning on this issue could be a useful departure point,” he says.

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