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Making Arms Embargoes in Africa More Effective

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Arms embargoes can be effective but require regional and international buy-in, adequate monitoring, and the imposition of sufficient costs on actors who evade the sanctions.

The African Union’s (AU’s) roadmap to “Silencing the Guns” by 2020 (now extended to 2030) includes arms embargoes as a strategic pillar and calls for better national, regional, and international coordination to deny armed groups access to weapons, finance, and other means to make war. Arms embargoes have long been part of a toolbox of instruments to end some of Africa’s deadliest conflicts, including those in Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Sudan, and between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Besides weapons, arms embargoes have also sought to disrupt access to natural resources, like diamonds, as well as to impose travel bans and freeze assets, to increase the costs of noncompliance by those who benefit from war. Arms embargoes do not always work as intended, however. Third parties, both within the region and beyond, sometimes actively participate in violating arms embargoes, reducing their effectiveness. The United Nations (UN) has decried what it calls “blatant” and “extensive” violations of a UN arms embargo in Libya including by Russia and Turkey who have sold embargoed items, such as drones, transport aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, artillery pieces, and armored vehicles, to different factions involved in the fighting, even as a UN-brokered Government of National Unity prepares the country for elections.

The Central African Republic (CAR) faces a similar situation. It is struggling to implement a 2019 AU/UN-brokered agreement—the seventh in eight years—between 14 armed groups. Despite a 2013 UN arms embargo, weapons, military equipment, and money continue to flow to various groups, including a coalition of six militias formed in 2020 that controls about two-thirds of the country.

Arms embargoes, and sanctions more broadly, are the subject of much debate in Africa, not least because African countries have been the target of the lion’s share of these coercive measures since the UN’s 1963 embargo (expanded in 1977) against apartheid South Africa. Since then, embargoes in Africa have been used in many contexts. However, these embargoes are regularly flouted, undermining the continent’s commitment to “Silencing the Guns.”