By Liam Kelly
This may sound bananas, but there are currently no legally binding, international rules regulating the arms trade. In fact, it is easier to trade guns than it is to trade bananas.
The global trade in arms and ammunition has an enormous human cost. We’re not talking about harmless yellow fruit here: we’re talking about bullets, guns, and grenades, about bombs, mortars and missiles, otherwise collectively known as conventional arms. Every day, thousands of people are killed, injured, raped and forced to flee from their homes as a result of armed conflict, armed violence, and the human rights violations and abuses which are perpetrated using such conventional arms.
And just as it sounds bananas that this is happening, it might also sound like we’re talking about far off war-torn humanitarian disasters and malevolent, unscrupulous governments somewhere a long way away from here. We’re not. The U.K. is one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, along with the Unites States, Russia, China, Germany, and France. Despite national regulations, all have sent arms to some highly questionable people.
David Cameron recently visited Asia, accompanied by representatives from leading British defense firms (‘defense’ being arms dealer parlance for ‘arms dealer’), touting for business. He was closely followed by William Hague who, when asked an uncomfortable question about British arms exports by a journalist in Singapore, broke out the standard diplo. response of;
“We have one of the most rigorous systems of scrutiny. Our arms exports with any other country in the world are at par with the rest of the E.U.”
Cameron’s February 2011 trip throughout North Africa at the height of the Arab Spring, again accompanied by British arms dealers, prompted the same rehearsed line. Inadequate and loophole-ridden national regulations of international transfers of conventional weapons permit arms to be supplied to those flagrantly violating human rights and humanitarian laws. Just as the UK supplied Indonesia with fighter jets, so it has supplied characters like Gaddafi and Mubarak in places like Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia with arms used for repression.
Hague does have a point though; the UK’s system is one of the most rigorous compared to the rest of the world. The problem being, that it’s just not good enough.
Some facts on the catastrophic results of the globally unregulated arms trade:
In an average year, small arms kill around a third of a million men, women and children – and leave hundreds of thousands more injured, disabled, traumatised and grieving. In addition, there are an estimated 300,000 armed killings outside of conflict each year. One person is killed every single minute of every single day by armed violence – in that same minute, 15 new arms are manufactured. Conflict costs African countries USD$18bn every year, and there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world today, mostly in Africa.
So why does the world pay this terrible price? The simple and sad answer is that the arms trade is worth billions.
Today’s most violent conflicts are fuelled by highly profitable arms. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime continues to receive arms used to commit massacres and war crimes from Russia, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar widely suspected to be supplying Syrian rebels. Violence rages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan, where China is accused of supplying arms in exchange for oil and gas, despite UN arms embargos, which have little impact on stopping the flow of arms.
The issue seems to have entered the public consciousness this year after two high profile convictions. Firstly, after a protracted extradition from Thailand, notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout was convicted and sentenced to 25 years by a U.S. court for agreeing to sell arms to people he thought were Colombian militants, intent on attacking American soldiers. The so called ‘Merchant of Death’ was previously committed to the silver screen in the Hollywood film Lord of War, where he sells and ships arms to dictators and murderers all over the world, including to Liberia.
The former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is the second high profile conviction. Earlier this month He was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague for war crimes after his role in arming RUF rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for ‘blood diamonds’, contravening UN arms embargos at the time.
But the cases of these two individuals merely scratch the surface of the murky world of the global arms trade. The Viktor Bouts and Charles Taylors of this world are replaced instantly by more arms dealers and war criminals and the endless flow of arms continues to fuel the endless bloodshed. This tragedy must, and can, be stopped.
What can we do about it?
The Control Arms campaign, a global civil society alliance campaigning for a “bulletproof” Arms Trade Treaty, is calling for a global, legally-binding Treaty, to control this deadly trade. Over one million people signed their Million Faces Petition, which was presented to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2006. Then, at the UN General Assembly in December 2006, a huge majority of 153 governments voted in favor of developing an Arms Trade Treaty. In 2009, work began in earnest on developing a treaty. The final negotiating conference now starts on July 2nd 2012.
Despite these successes, some governments want to weaken the Treaty, by not including ammunition for example. Pressure needs to be kept on them to make sure that they don’t succeed and to make sure that human rights are at the heart of the Treaty.
The demand is simple; no arms for atrocities, no transfer of arms or munitions to places where there exists a risk that they will be used for human rights abuses.
What Happens Next?
As David Cameron prepares to send the UK negotiating team to the UN, at PMQs this week, he was asked directly to voice support for a robust Arms Trade Treaty with human rights at its core; His answer was full of more well rehearsed diplo. rhetoric, which ticked all the right boxes, as have the public declarations of support from Nick Clegg and William Hague. The UK, it seems, is determined to lead the way in working towards a strong and legally binding treaty. What remains to be seen however, is how this sits with the economic benefits of the ever profitable and recession-proof British arms industry. The proof of this pudding will be in the tasting.
We are on the verge of what could be one of the greatest human rights breakthroughs in history. But we are not there yet.
* Scott Sidel,”The United States and Genocide in East Timor,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 1, 1981