Tackling the insecurity that threatens us all – Kenya and the Arms Trade Treaty

By Justus Nyang’aya, Director of Amnesty International Kenya

Justus Nyang’aya is the Director of Amnesty International Kenya © Amnesty International (photographer Kinoti Imanyara )
Justus Nyang’aya is the Director of Amnesty International Kenya © Amnesty International (photographer Kinoti Imanyara )

The only reason I’m alive is because my attackers ran out of bullets.

I remember that evening – 17 December 2013 – very clearly. The look of surprise on the gunman’s face after he hunched down on one knee, took aim at me one last time, and nothing came out when he pulled the trigger.

Despite having already been shot three times – in my chest, my left hand and my right leg – I managed to fend off the gunman and his four accomplices by throwing plates and glasses; whatever I could grab around my home. The resulting mess and pools of blood in my kitchen were a testament to the struggle.

When they fled, I was left with three bullet wounds in my body and multiple broken bones in my hand, but with the help of my wife and some good Samaritans, I finally made it to a Nairobi hospital for treatment and was able to make a full recovery.

By the grace of God, I survived. My wife and two of my children – who were hiding in our house during the traumatic incident – escaped unharmed. And the criminals only made away with some cash and valuables.

But the pervading sense of insecurity and helplessness has been crushing.

We are not safe at all in our homes. We are not safe on our streets. Where can we run to for security?

These thoughts, which reverberated in my mind as I lay recovering in hospital, are shared by millions of Kenyans every day. There is a growing sense of insecurity, fuelled by the massive amounts of small arms and ammunition that flow into and around Kenya unchecked.

Armed violence has been responsible for thousands of deaths in Kenya in recent years. While it is often Kenyans doing the killing and the dying, the vast majority of firearms are not made here.

The guns and bullets that cut short and ruin so many Kenyan lives are made in Europe, China and elsewhere. Unregistered weapons make it to our country and into the wrong hands through a byzantine global system of arms transfers that has until now been very poorly regulated. They flood in from neighbouring countries after changing hands many times – from manufacturers to dealers to brokers to shipping companies and are diverted on to any number of shady operators, criminal gangs and armed groups.

This is a scenario that repeats itself in countless countries around the world that are wracked by armed violence. Year on year, upwards of 500,000 people across the planet are killed as a result of this poorly regulated global arms trade. Many millions more are wounded, displaced, raped, or suffer other serious human rights abuses.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Ironically, the night before I was shot, I had been talking about the solution to this very issue at the Kenya Law Society. My speech retraced steps I’ve tread a hundred times, both in Kenya and abroad.

Exactly a year ago, on 2 April 2013, the international community finally adopted the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the US$75 billion international trade in weapons and munitions. More than three-quarters of the world’s countries backed it at the UN General Assembly in New York.

It was a hard-won victory that followed two decades of intensive campaigning by Amnesty International and other NGOs. I was among a small delegation of civil society representatives at the UN for those final, tense weeks of negotiations.

It was a moment of great pride when we got the treaty. I was proud of what my colleagues and a small group of governments had been able to accomplish on the world stage. I was proud, too, of my country’s role in helping to make that happen. After all, Kenya was one of the first states to declare its public support for an Arms Trade Treaty and had been among a handful of states who co-authored the initial UN resolution in 2006, kicking off the diplomatic talks, and co-authored several further General Assembly resolutions on the UN process that eventually resulted in the Arms Trade Treaty.

But that pride has given way to frustration and despair, akin to the helplessness I felt when the armed attackers stormed my home.

Kenya’s leaders actively helped the world to get the Arms Trade Treaty, but they are now shirking their duty. In fact, since the treaty opened for signature on 3 June 2013, Kenya has taken no further action at the UN to support the treaty – it is not even among the 118 states that have signed or the 13 that have ratified.

Even more worrying, Kenya is not alone. A total of 43 out of the 155 states that gave the Arms Trade Treaty the green light at the UN last year have since shrunk away from their commitment to bring it into force. Most of these countries are in the global South whose regions are plagued by high levels of gun violence, sometimes brutal repression of human rights and all-too-frequent armed conflicts.

The Arms Trade Treaty will only become legally binding after 50 states ratify. Kenya should be leading the way and has every reason to sign and ratify. Because of the insecurity that plagues our homes and streets, Kenya should be among the countries heading up the charge. It should serve as an example to other states in Africa and around the world whose regions suffer high levels of gun violence, human rights violations and war crimes carried out down the barrel of a weapon.

If the international community fails to strictly regulate the international trade in arms, our lives and livelihoods are all at risk.

Stories like mine, and those of the hundreds of thousands of other survivors of armed violence, point to the real and present dangers of the international proliferation of small arms.

Much needs to be done by national authorities in Kenya and other countries to deal with the day-to-day impact of this proliferation – to rein in criminality and beef up real security for the people.

But if we fail to ensure the strict control of arms transfers, millions of ordinary people will continue to suffer. It is crucial that Kenya live up to its commitment to stem the flow of arms into the hands of human rights abusers wherever they are – the Kenyan government must sign, ratify and begin implementing the Arms Trade Treaty without delay.

Over to you, Mr. President.

Read more: 

UN: Atrocities fuelled by inaction on Arms Trade Treaty promises (News story, 1 April 2014)UN puts human rights at heart of historic Arms Trade Treaty (News story, 2 April 2013)
The long journey towards an Arms Trade Treaty (Feature, 5 June 2013)