THE ‘Tree of Life’ is in the British Museum. It’s 3 metres high and made of parts from small arms. (Some reviewers seem to take pride in identifying them: ‘That’s an AK47 barrel.’ ‘There’s a Walther-42 hand grip.’) As part of the ‘Africa 2005’ season, the Museum, together with Christian Aid, commissioned some Mozambican artists to create the Tree and other sculptures in this unusual medium. When civil war in Mozambique ended in 1992, the country was awash with small arms. A project called ‘Transforming Arms Into Tools’ was founded to collect and break up the weapons, exchanging them for useful items like bicycles, sewing machines, farming tools and building materials. One village collected 500 weapons and received a tractor in return. Among the project’s workers are former child soldiers. One of them explained, ‘Before, I didn’t have a bicycle to go to town and my shop. I didn’t have iron sheets to cover my house. I have been given very useful things, which means I can get on with my life.’ 600,000 small arms have been collected so far, and there are many more to find. Swords into ploughshares indeed. It’s a shame such projects direct and simple ways to help restore normality in a war-torn region are so rare.
It’s not as if there were no awareness of the problem of small arms, which in recent years has been hauled a little higher in the world’s political agendas. People do know that small arms facilitate ethnic cleansing, genocide and civilian displacement. They acknowledge the relationship of small arms to crime and abuse. They realise that the easy availability of light weapons undermines public safety, economic development and the rule of law. Aid agencies and governments alike have pressed for stringent action. As a result of that pressure, in July 2001 the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms was held. Like many UN conferences it was long on rhetoric and short on concrete commitment, but the delegates finally managed to agree on a Programme of Action. Their respective countries would be urged to help develop a global system to track illegal arms trading.
But this was not the tough plan contained in the Conference’s original draft. Its watering-down was due entirely to the negative approach of the US (the largest arms supplier worldwide). John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs since 2000, told the delegates the US would not ‘join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.’ He told the Conference that the US would not support moves to outlaw arming rebel and paramilitary groups: after all, they might be freedom fighters against oppression. A frustrated African delegate pointed out, ‘If you send arms to non-state actors, you’re sending them to rebels trying to overthrow governments.’ ‘The US should be ashamed,’ said another. Not least because John Bolton said the US opposed a ban on private ownership of military weapons (such as assault rifles and grenade launchers) and wouldn’t even help fund a human rights campaign to increase public awareness of the illegal small arms trade.
The rest of the world isn’t giving up.
Meanwhile we should also keep in mind the ‘bigger picture’ tellingly illustrated by the photograph above.