China tries to suppress UN report on bullets

By Scott McKenzie - 15 November 2010

Recent reports of Chinese involvement with the conflict in Sudan underscore a wider clash between the rise of a human rights regime verses economic laissez-faire.  Accusations have been made that Chineese bullets were  used against United Nations peace keepers.  This, however, would not immediately result in a violation of international law or United Nations sanctions.  The bullets, however, do draw more attention to the nature of the violence in the region.  China’s attempts at minimizing exposure also underscores a dark underside to the growing influence of foreign powers on the affairs of Africa.

The United Nations tries to maintain peace in Sudan
As a result of conflict in Sudan, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1769 on July 31st, 2007 and created the United Nations and African Union Hybrid operation in Darfur known as UNAMID.  The main goal of this force is to protect civilians in the Darfur area.  It has other functions such as; improving security, greater humanitarian assistance, implementing treaties and peace agreements, the protection of basic human rights, and the promotion of the rule of law.  In the summer of 2010 this force included 16,954 troops; 258 military observers; 4,795 police officers; 1,120 international civilian personnel; 2,642 local civilian staff, and 454 United Nations volunteers.  Showing how deeply other states are already involved in the affairs of Sudan, UNAMID is comprised of citizens from 36 countries.  The most represented region was Africa, with several Asian countries also making strong contributions, but notably absent are personal from the United States and some major European powers.

The road for UNAMID has not been smooth in a country that has experienced profound conflict and violence. Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powel described it as the worst humanitarian conflict of the 21st century.  While the fighting is no longer at previous levels, there are still significant attacks from rebels such as members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), or the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

Concerns are raised about the source of weapons in the region
China is Sudan’s largest arms dealer.  This fact alone is not problematic, or even real news.  It may be morally questionable to send weapons to a country experiencing conflict, but it is a common practice that for many countries makes economic sense.  For example, in the last month, the United States signed a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, some of which are sure to be used against rebels along its border with Yemen.

The Small Arms Survey (SAS), at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva Switzerland reports that China accounted for a staggering 72 percent of Sudan’s imports of small arms and ammunition from 2001 to 2008.  The Small Arms Survey report says that arms enter the conflict in a number of ways including “leakage from governments, capture during fighting, stolen or captured peacekeeping stocks.”  It points out that some militias launch their attacks in two stages.  In the first stage they capture the weapons that they use in much larger second stage larger attack.  Sometimes these arms captures come from attacks on the UN itself, as in the case of a commercial truck convey that was attacked while carrying 12 tons of Chinese made ammunition for UNAMID.

Another way that weapons are brought to the conflict is though neighboring countries.  Many of Sudan’s neighbors have been under a cloud of suspicion for actively or passively allowing weapons to cross their borders and be used in Sudan.  The Small Arms Survey points out that Chad and Libya are two major violators, and have contributed many light arms and ammunition but also some heavier weapons including rocket launchers. 

Report says Chinese bullets used, does not assign blame
The root of this recent issue is the result of a report that found a number of brands of bullets had been fired at the UNAMID force, including 12 brands from China, 4 domestically made in Sudan, and 2 from Israel.  Some people might leap to the conclusion that this violates international law.  A 2005 United Nations Security Council resolution requires that the Sudanese government must guarantee that imported arms will not be used in the Darfur region.  A diplomat, however, reported to Reuters that "There's no evidence that the bullets were sent directly by China with the government's knowledge to Khartoum for use in Darfur, or that it was China that sold the ammunition to Sudan."  Thus, this report provides little ground to claim that China itself has made shady arms deals or violated the law.

However, the problem gains an extra level of intrigue when examined in light of China’s extensive investments in Africa and Sudan in particular.  The Small Arms Survey points out that China’s ties to the petroleum sector in particular provides both a means and a motivation for continued arms sales to Sudan.  The same anonymous diplomat described China’s intense effort to squash the report as “suspicious.”  China has reacted negatively to the report, threatening to veto a renewal of the mandate of the United Nations Security Council’s Sudan sanctions committee Panel of Experts.  China’s delegate Yang Tao backed away from this harsh tactic with a more diplomatic statement of, “there is much room for improvement in the work of the panel.”

One problem is that China has taken the Sudanese government’s word that its ammunition would not be used in Darfur.  However there has been little follow up to ensure complience.  In a country like Sudan that has had many problems in the past with domestic and international rule of law, it is hardly surprising that weapons leakage and capture would occur.  This is not itself a violation of international law, but taken with China’s reluctance to support other United Nations resolutions such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 1556, which it abstained from, call into question its commitment to working collaboratively with other countries for a peaceful conclusion to the conflict.  As Pieter Wezeman a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute points out “The Sudanese have never really denied that they bring them [arms] into Darfur against the stipulations of the UN arms embargo. . .China says it's not their fault, but shouldn't they claim some responsibility for not insisting that the Sudanese live up to the agreement that they have with China."


China is already an economic giant, and its investments in Africa are quickly becoming well-known for their size and scope.  This ties China's economic future together with the security of the contintent.  China sometimes takes a different view of human rights than many other countries.  Africa provides a new opportunity for China to show that it is willing to work with the international community to solve violence around the world.  It can do so by aggressively adapting policies that make sure its ammunition does not find its way into the hands of rebel groups or are used by a government against its own people.  Its current policy seems aimed at denying any involvement, when it is clear that it could do much more.  A continuation of this policy does not bode well for the future, hopefully China will take a more forward and aggressive approach to peace and human rights in the future.

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