Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate: Silencing the Guns in Africa

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
February 27, 2019


Thank you, Mr. President, and welcome back to this Council chamber. Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo, High Representative Lamamra, Executive Director Gounden, thank you for your briefings today. Mr. President, today’s debate and vote on a UN Security Council resolution supporting the AU’s “Silencing the Guns in Africa” initiative is intended to advance the goal of creating an African continent free of conflict. As we’ve stated before, the goal for a conflict-free Africa is ambitious and worthy but it will not be easy to implement. Nevertheless, this resolution and gatherings like today’s open debate demonstrate the willingness of the African Union and its member states, as well as the broader international community, to take on the challenge.

The factors contributing to violence in Africa are complex. Poor governance, corruption, and underdevelopment create fragility that feeds cycles of conflict.

Additionally, poor management of natural resources can contribute to the problem. Proper management of natural resource endowments should bring prosperity and social development, but in too many countries natural resource wealth does not translate into improved livelihoods for citizens, but feeds corruption, violence, and conflict.

Mr. President, as most other speakers have also noted, trafficking in and circulation and use of small arms and light weapons remain key drivers of conflict in Africa, responsible for a majority of deaths in conflicts. Small arms are illicitly acquired through various means, including diversion from national stockpiles, attacks on military posts, and trafficking and sales by networks willing to sell weapons to non-state actors. These activities often violate UN arms embargoes, or contravene UN sanctions regimes.

Corrupt officials who turn a blind eye to the pilfering of unsecured weapons stockpiles also facilitate the smuggling of arms. Weak criminal justice systems, weak border and maritime controls, inadequate physical security, and poor stockpile management further exacerbate the problem.

These are just a few of the many factors that propagate conflict in Africa. Today we must ask ourselves: what actions can we take to combat these drivers of violence?

First, we can strengthen existing mechanisms to anticipate the outbreak of conflict – whatever the cause – and support mediation and prevention efforts. Empowering the Continental Early Warning System by giving additional political weight to its analytical findings and by endorsing diplomatic responses that address a potential crisis in its infancy are two critically important examples. Taking action as a result of the warning systems is often politically difficult but can be key to reducing the potential for violence.

Second, states can bilaterally partner with countries across the continent to address arms control in Africa. The United States is assisting Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda to meet their commitments under the Nairobi Protocol. In Somalia, U.S. programs bolster the security of Federal Government of Somalia stockpiles against attacks by al-Shabaab and other armed groups. The United States has also worked to stabilize eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by destroying excess and poorly secured weapons and ammunition and by improving physical security and stockpile management for the Congolese Army and National Police. Additionally, the United States funds a multi-million dollar responsible minerals trade program aimed at breaking the link between conflict and the mineral trade in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr. President, the United States has also consistently supported many important goals of the African Union Agenda 2063. The agenda includes important goals such as improving access to and the quality of education, investing in infrastructure, protecting the environment, and strengthening democracy and the rule of law. We are concerned, however, by language committing to reduce food imports, which could have a negative impact on food security and may not be consistent with trade obligations of African Members of the WTO. We hope to hold further discussions with the AU on this issue.

Third, the international community should continue to look for ways to bolster cooperation with the African Union, other regional organizations, and individual African states to prevent and mitigate crises, resolve conflicts, and prevent mass atrocities and the displacement of populations. Strong African leadership and commitments to addressing the underlying causes of violence will facilitate this cooperation. Today’s resolution is a good example of this type of partnership.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. President, we can expect governments in Africa to hold each other accountable to provide security to all their citizens, regardless of race and ethnicity, and in a way that respects and values human rights. Societies that promote and protect human rights are more resilient. The United States also recognizes the role of women’s empowerment and leadership in preventing conflict.

It’s particularly troubling when armed state security forces repress and abuse citizens, as we have seen recently in countries such as Zimbabwe, where earlier this year, state security forces were responsible for at least 13 deaths, 600 victims of violence and torture, and at least 600 arbitrary arrests. We call on governments, including in Zimbabwe, to hold accountable those state security forces, who misuse their positions to commit human rights abuses and violations.

The escalating crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon is also of concern. We urge both sides in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon to renounce further violence and to allow unfettered access for humanitarian and healthcare workers. We call for immediate and broad-based reconciliatory dialogue, without pre-conditions, between the Government of Cameroon and separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.

In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir has declared a year-long state of emergency and has dissolved national and provincial governments in response to protests calling for his removal from office as a result of months of economic and political crises. At the same time, Sudanese Security Forces’ repressive tactics, including the use of live fire, arbitrary detention, and torture, threaten to further destabilize Sudan. There is an urgent need for political and economic reform in Sudan that is fully inclusive and that addresses the legitimate grievances expressed by the protestors.

Mr. President, the United States recognizes that lasting stability, prosperity, independence, and security on the African continent are in the national interest of the United States, of countries represented in this chamber, and around the globe. We’ll continue to be a close partner of the African Union and its member states in addressing the underlying causes of conflict. With the collective support of the Security Council, we look forward to continuing to work together to Silence the Guns and end conflict on the African continent. Thank you for your attention.