Saturday, February 26, 2005

BANGLADESH: India takes its arms beefs to the UN



The internationalization of Bangladesh's internal security problems have led investigators to look back into Bangladesh's biggest arms haul ever - an event that took place on a jetty in the Karnaphuli River in Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong last April 2. The international investigators believe that militants from India, who have been provided sanctuaries in Bangladesh, could be behind the assassination attempts; India, which was denied an investigative role in the Chittagong arms haul, still maintains that the weapons seized were consigned to the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other northeastern terrorist groups.


India takes its arms beefs to the UN
Ramtanu Maitra

New Delhi is in the process of drafting a proposal to the United Nations seeking a global ban on small-arms sales to non-state actors. India is being swamped with small arms from all directions, but the most dangerous developments are taking place in the country's restless northeast. There, small arms are streaming in from Southeast Asia by the boatload and via jungle trails through Myanmar.

The worsening security situations in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal, where violence and arms are proliferating at an exponential rate, add urgency to Delhi's concern. There is no indication that the leadership in either Dhaka or Kathmandu can control the threat.

In the present South Asian regional context, New Delhi considers the strengthening of its economic and political relations with Southeast Asia of vital importance. Besides the economic factor, which is of driving importance, India's emergence as a major economic and military power in recent years makes it incumbent on leadership in New Delhi to cultivate a regional presence.

Essential security issue

The proposal for an international ban on small-arms trafficking is being developed jointly by the Indian Home Ministry and External Affairs Ministry. According to reports from a senior Home Ministry official who recently toured the northeast to evaluate the scope of operations and extent of control exerted by insurgents: "If a global ban is achieved, it would help to improve the security situation in the country."

Indeed, a host of poorly governed nations adjacent to India in the east along with subversion by various anti-India guerrilla forces in the northeast have combined to put India's security situation under extreme stress. Secessionists, Indian Maoists (also known as Naxalites) and the mafia are the primary purchasers of small weapons, ranging from Kalashnikov assault rifles to sophisticated M-16s. A few Western European countries and collapsed communist regimes of Eastern Europe, some Indian officials point out, have been selling arms to these violent groups, overtly or covertly, and earning huge profits. The arms sales channels are well established and serve ever-widening conflict zones in India's northeast. It is also common knowledge by now that insurgents and armed opposition groups in South Asia and Southeast Asia have access to top arms smuggling kingpins in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Whether India is successful in this initiative depends on how it conveys its concerns to the European nations, Israel and, particularly, the United States. At this point India hopes that the US and Israel will second the proposal, perhaps with minor changes, because both have now become full-fledged victims of militants and extremists who use small arms and weapons to terrorize their populations.

Broadly speaking, "small arms" covers both military-style small arms and light weapons, as well as commercial firearms (handguns and long guns). According to the United Nations Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (United Nations, 1997), a ban would cover the following types of weapons: Small arms, including revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles, submachine-guns and light machine-guns; and light weapons, including heavy machine-guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers or anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems and mortars of less than 100mm caliber.

Trade bonanza

Significantly, during the 1990s, conventional arms killed an estimated 5 million people, or 1,370 people every day, and forced more than 50 million people to leave their homes. Millions more lost their property, livelihood or loved ones. In Rwanda alone, almost a million people were killed in 1994 with the aid of weapons that belong to the small-arms category.

At the present time, the annual trade in small arms is about $40 billion. Two-thirds of global arms deliveries go to the developing countries. Small arms are produced by more than 1,000 companies in at least 98 countries, with about 7 million new arms produced annually.

These are extremely damning figures, and one would expect no country to have difficulty in supporting the imposition of a global ban on small arms. But such is not the case. In some ways, the economics of gun-running are similar to drug production and trafficking. The small-arms trade, like drug trafficking, generates a lot of cash, much of which stays out of the account books. It is a very attractive option, not only to opportune investors but also to cash-starved private banks.

Because of the economic return small-arms manufacturers enjoy, India can expect to face an uphill task in bringing about a consensus among developed nations to get the draft to the UN floor. Delhi, however, has no choice. It cannot afford to ignore the realities in its northeast. It cannot ignore how vulnerable the northeast has become because of the brazen activities of drug and gun-runners in Southeast Asia using Bangladesh as a conduit.

The rapid rise of a virulent form of anti-India Islamists in Bangladesh, and their gathering of strength, is a reality. For instance, it is public knowledge now that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Scotland Yard and Interpol agents are involved in investigating bomb attacks that narrowly missed the Bangladeshi opposition leader and former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed in Dhaka, and British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury, during his visit to Sylhet. Another bomb attack killed Bangladesh's former finance minister, Shah A M S Kibria. It is evident that Dhaka, politically weak and compromised, cannot afford to punish the culprits.

Bangladesh: Trans-shipment point

The internationalization of Bangladesh's internal security problems have led investigators to look back into Bangladesh's biggest arms haul ever - an event that took place on a jetty in the Karnaphuli River in Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong last April 2. The international investigators believe that militants from India, who have been provided sanctuaries in Bangladesh, could be behind the assassination attempts; India, which was denied an investigative role in the Chittagong arms haul, still maintains that the weapons seized were consigned to the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other northeastern terrorist groups.

According to Indian intelligence sources, that haul netted 1,790 rifles (including Uzi submachine-guns and assault rifles of the AK series), 150 rocket launchers, 840 rockets, 2,700 grenades and more than a million rounds of ammunition. After being unloaded on the east bank of the Karnaphulli River from two trawlers that originated in Malaysia, the weapons were being loaded on to 10 trucks. Some former Bangladeshi army generals and security analysts observed that the weapons recovered and the quantity involved suggested use in conventional warfare against a regular army.

Investigators believe that well-organized syndicates in Bangladesh are using the country only as a transit route, and that the arms were earmarked for the Maoist rebels in Nepal or the numerous separatist groups operating in India's northeast. An English daily from Dhaka, the Daily Star, quoted "intelligence agents" pointing out that the weapons were probably destined for the troubled Indian state of Assam. Indian authorities insist that the topmost military commander of ULFA has been operating his anti-India insurgency from bases in Dhaka and elsewhere in Bangladesh.

According to local media reports in Guwahati, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, the trawlers were owned by the brother of a ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader. These ships often use the Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd (CUFL) jetty to unload consignments - the same jetty at which Bangladeshi paramilitary troopers carried out the raid last April. It is said that the local police had no intention to seize the material and that it is more than likely that large caches of weapons had been allowed to enter the country by the local authorities on many occasions.

UN dithering

It's not that the international community is not aware of this scourge. At the UN Small Arms Conference in July 2001 the international community recognized the need to control the state-sanctioned trade in small arms. A key provision in this regard is found in Section II, Paragraph 11 of the UN Program of Action: "Member states undertake to assess applications for export authorizations according to strict national regulations and procedures that cover all small arms and light weapons and are consistent with the existing responsibilities of states under relevant international law."

At the same conference, a proposal to ban the transfer of handheld and shoulder-supported missile launchers to non-governmental parties received nearly universal support. Unfortunately, however, the US delegation fought the ban, and prevailed. The US group also opposed proposals to register new weapons with identifiable, inalterable serial numbers. Indelibly marked weapons would be easier to trace back to their manufacturers and brokers. The 5,000-10,000 small rockets that now belong to non-state combatants - including terrorists in Afghanistan, who have made US aircraft some of their priority targets - somehow leaked out of government channels worldwide and into the black market.

The US position is not, however, simply driven by its manufacturers' extra cash-generation benefits. In reality, although the US is by far the world's leading source for legal weapons, with annual arms sales totaling about $12 billion, the bulk of illegal weapons sales come from former Sovie-bloc countries where the Kalashnikov is produced, according to law-enforcement officials and arms traffickers alike. Most of the weapons used in irregular warfare, from the Balkans to Colombia, have come from Russia and former Soviet satellite states.

At the UN Special Conference in 2002 on the possession, proliferation and misuse of illegal small arms and light weapons (SALW), numerous non-governmental organizations were engaged in either persuading or assisting national governments in the worst-affected states to establish plans of action to address SALW issues. These range from ensuring better stockpile controls within the security forces to the creation of national commissions to work across government departments and the security forces to address issues relating to control, decommissioning and destruction of weapons.

New Delhi believes that the US has begun looking at the issue in a different light since September 11, 2001. Perhaps. But according to Dosim Sapayev, an analyst from the International War and Peace Institute: "The West is worried about nuclear missiles, tanks and aircraft, not hand-held weapons."

Ramtanu Maitra writes for a number of international journals and is a regular contributor to the Washington-based EIR and the New Delhi-based Indian Defence Review. He also writes for Aakrosh, India 's defense-tied quarterly journal.