Remarks By Professor Kader Asmal, MP, Chairperson, National Conventional Arms Control Committee
(Source : South African Ministry of Education; issued Aug. 20, 2002)
(EDITOR'S NOTE: These comments were made at the National Assembly on Aug. 20, during the second reading of the National Conventional Arms Control Bill. Asmal also serves as South Africa's Minister of Education)
 Madam Speaker, Honourable members

Margaret Thatcher once said that when I sell arms for Britain, I am batting for Britain. However, in our context, as is evident from the activities of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee as well as the provisions contained in the Bill we are debating today, our stance is fundamentally different. Indeed, our arms sales policy, rather than being a free for all, has been one of restraint.

I have been Chairperson of the Cabinet-appointed Committee on Arms Control since its inauguration in August 1995. As members are no doubt aware, this is not my line function. This is because, given our underlying policy perspective of restraint, Cabinet, in accordance with the Bill, decided to appoint a Chair who had no direct line function responsibility for the manufacture and the sale of arms.

This perspective has arisen from the fact that in 1995 we were dealing with what was essentially a past mischief. This Bill therefore represents the democratic state's answer to the activities of the merchants of death, whether it was in Yemen or in Rwanda, recklessly and carelessly plunging us into activities that were against our national interest by selling arms indiscriminately to those who undermined legitimate governments, stroked internal rivalries, weakened economies and generally destabilised our continent.

From the outset the NCACC has gone about its business in a responsible, accountable and transparent way concerning the regulatory control of conventional armaments.

The rationale and principles that guided NCACC decision-making in the original Cabinet directive have stood the test of time and served the country well. They are now incorporated in the NCAC Bill. We have played a leading role in ensuring that the Government's policy on the non-proliferation of small arms and ammunition in Southern Africa has been effective. We have assured the integrity of South Africa's regulatory control process that complies with all aspects of control in the transfer of armaments.

The preamble to the NCAC Bill enshrines all that the NCACC has worked and stood for in the past seven years, specifically to ensure proper accountability in the trade in conventional arms" and "to foster national and international confidence in the control procedures".

Today therefore, I would like to share with you some of the lessons that have emerged from our experiences as the NCACC, as it is these lessons that we believe have shaped the Bill before us.

The first lesson was that there must be regulatory mechanisms. These mechanisms must provide for a policy of restraint, which I mentioned earlier. And I am pleased to report to the House that we have indeed exercised this mandate.

We do not sell arms to all-comers; we don't sell arms to those who are considered to be consistently violating human rights. We also have brought within the mechanism of arms control the export of what I call police arms or commercial arms of dynamite. It is the NCACC that introduced the highly praised Military Assistance Act, which was passed by this House in 1998, which has effectively stroked the dogs of war.

The second lesson I have learnt is that it is vital that there should be a total political oversight of the system, unlike in other countries where civil servants effectively decide on every application, except for some of the very sensitive cases, which are exposed in the public domain.

Applications in this regard go through a very complex process. There is a sifting arrangement, involving the strategic government departments, then the Control Committee, known as the Scrutiny Committee, and finally it comes before the NCACC, which has nine or ten government Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

This, I am sure you will agree, is rather an extraordinary process. No other country in the world has this system where Ministers spend, every month, for three or four hours, going through policy as well as through each an every individual application. This is done from January to December.

It is important therefore that the system is known because we report to the Cabinet every three months on these matters. We also publish these details on the United Nations Register and we lead the world in ensuring that the government's policy on non-proliferation of small arms and ammunition in Southern Africa is made effective. In addition, we supervised the destruction of arms, disused and unused, arms that are effectively not in use rather than flooding the market with them. This initiative is one, which has earned us international praise.

We have ensured that, unlike what happened in 1993 over the Yemen arms affair, for the last nearly ten years or so there has been no sustained accusation that the regulatory mechanism has been broken by South African arms manufactures. This is a kind of historic triumph. Our enemies may accuse us here and there, but there has been no proof.

Difficult decisions will have to be made in the national interest. Any decision taken cannot conflict with our foreign policy and should be informed by this. That is why Cabinet direction is so important.

Since 1995 we are the only country that has tried to ensure that there is an embargo or moratorium on certain countries until there is a revival of democracy. Of course our relationships with our strategic partners are governed by our foreign policy. In other cases we have ensured that in our actions we have not furthered violence. In the case of the DRC, for example, we placed a moratorium on all parties involved in the conflict until there was an irrevocable movement towards peace and a settlement.

We therefore believe that it is in the national interest to have regulatory mechanisms. The definition of the national interest has, of course, been shaped by a combination of factors.

First of all it is in our interests to, however much some may regret having an arms industry, to maintain the industry because the Constitution lays down that there shall be a South African National Defence Force. And we need to recognise that you cannot rely on another country to maintain our Defence Force in a state of readiness and preparedness. It is therefore necessary to sustain an arms industry for the simple reason that we need to have an efficient defence force.

Secondly, of course we are a regional power, and we take into account the needs of our region. They do not wish to be wholly dependent on overseas imports.

Thirdly, of course, is the pursuit of our principles of being neighbours, of equity, and most important of all, the respect for the right to self-defence of countries which we have to take into account.

Then of course there is the Constitutional assumption that respect for human rights, as a fundamental feature of our domestic policy, has resonance externally. Quite clearly it is impossible to lay down that we shall not export arms because present conditions in a particular country are not very good or for that matter we do not approve of some of the policies of that country.

It is a combination of factors, which inform our decisions, chief among them that there must be a consistent and massive violation of human rights in order for us not to sell arms to the country concerned. And of course we have to take into account that we cannot really act as moral censors of whatever country in the world.

I am convinced, however, that our record in ensuring that we carry out a proper investigation as far as this is concerned has been upheld. In 1995 and in 1997 we took into account the need to build up the social and institutional structures in Rwanda, which had just gone through a genocidal experience. Who can say retrospectively that we were wrong although at that time we were vilified? We took into account that to build human rights you have to sustain state structures, which is enormously important.

We believe that the oversight role by the Cabinet has been vital and necessary. The oversight role the Select Committee of Parliament will now play further strengthens the regulatory process and we welcome this. There is a need to define and balance the legislative and the executive processes and responsibilities. This is important as it ensures that accountability becomes entrenched and transparent.

The NCAC Bill is the culmination of much work done by many actors across the democratic spectrum, including government departments, the legislature and civil society. In my view this is the first comprehensive Bill of its kind that I have read anywhere and it represents a major step forward by the Government. Other countries have acted entirely on the basis of executive discussion. We set this up through a presidential and Cabinet directive in 1995. Now at the insistence of the NCACC and the Cabinet, we are giving this legislative form. We did not have to do so.

The international recognition South Africa currently enjoys, as a responsible country in matters relating to trade in conventional arms, will no doubt be further strengthened by this Bill. I only hope that those who are critics of the Bill will take into account how these measure and the Foreign Military Assistance Act has done credit to our country overseas.


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