"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Chinese Arms Shipment Sparks Outrage

Jeff Abramson and Jessica Lasky-Fink

In April, South African dockworkers refused to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying more than 70 tons of small arms destined for Zimbabwe. The refusal set off international reactions that led to the recall of the shipment and calls for stronger international arms trade measures, such as a global arms trade treaty.

The shipment, including three million rounds of ammunition for AK47s and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, was meant to be unloaded at Durban, South Africa, and transported overland to land-locked Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has experienced increasing political strife since March parliamentary and presidential elections in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change claimed victory over the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. In light of escalating tensions in Zimbabwe, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) declared that its port members would not unload the ship's cargo for fear that the weapons would contribute to internal repression. SATAWU instead called for the ship to return to China with the arms onboard and for a peaceful solution to be sought to the political instability in Zimbabwe.

SATAWU is affiliated with the International Transport Workers Federation, which expressed full support for the union's actions and continued to track the ship's movements. After being rebuffed from South Africa, the ship sailed to and docked in Angola where it only unloaded construction materials, according to transport union officials.

Initially, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the shipment, saying it was part of normal trade between two sovereign countries. The ZANU-PF also defended their right to buy weapons from any legal source. China announced April 24 that because it could not deliver the arms shipment, the Chinese company responsible for the ship was recalling its vessel.

International Reaction

The incident generated international outcry and raised further questions about the export of arms to countries with dubious democracy records or that are engaged in civil war.

Zambia, which currently chairs the Southern African Development Community (SADC), urged regional states to prohibit the ship from entering their waters. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa voiced his belief April 21 that the "Chinese can play a very useful role in Zimbabwe without the use of arms."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown went a step further April 23 and called for a worldwide arms embargo on Zimbabwe. The next day, U.S. ambassadors and other Department of State officials called the idea a "good one" that "[t]he United States will consider seriously." On April 29, EU foreign ministers followed with their own appeal to China, African nations, and others to ban the supply or sale of arms and related equipment that could exacerbate political tensions in Zimbabwe.

The UN Security Council met at the end of April to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe but failed to agree on an appropriate course of action. Any resolution regarding Zimbabwe must be agreed on by all five permanent members of the Security Council, including China, which is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies.

Although there is no UN-sponsored arms embargo on Zimbabwe, the 27-member European Union has unilaterally implemented a sanctions regime on the Mugabe government. The EU first imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002 in response to the perceived breakdown of the rule of law and human rights violations under the rule of ZANU-PF. The measures adopted in 2002 have since been renewed and include an embargo on the sale of arms to Zimbabwe and the freezing of personal assets of and travel restrictions on senior members of government and other high-ranking officials.

In an op-ed published in early May, South African Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu explicitly linked the incident with a call for a global arms trade treaty now under discussion. He wrote that "[a]t the moment the UN is working on an arms trade treaty that could stop weapons transfers such as this one to Zimbabwe. If a strong treaty eventually becomes law, then an arms exporter will have to block the sale if there is evidence the weapons are likely to be used to commit serious violations of human rights law."

As part of a UN-sponsored process, a group of government experts from 28 countries are conducting a study of the "feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." (See ACT, March 2008.) That group has met twice, with a final meeting to take place July 28-Aug. 8.

It is unclear whether a treaty that might eventually result from the process would have stopped the shipment to Zimbabwe. According to a U.S. official who spoke with Arms Control Today May 22, a future arms trade treaty's reporting mechanism will probably call for notification after a transfer rather than prior to it. As such, the requirements may resemble the now voluntary UN Register of Conventional Arms, to which about 120 countries currently file a report. (See ACT, September and November 2007.)

The U.S. official also suggested that states participating in an arms trade treaty are unlikely to place absolute limits on their arms transfer decisions. Instead, eventual states-parties would more likely commit to taking certain factors into consideration when making arms trade decisions, but ultimately choose to engage in trade based on national prerogatives. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Whether or not an arms trade treaty emerges from the incident, the U.S. official praised the outcome of the standoff: "It is a positive development that neighbors got involved to take action. It goes to the old adage that talk is cheap, action is dear."