Liam Kelly holds History of Art degree from Nottingham University. He writes for newspapers, magazines, and blogs in the UK. He is also an Amnesty International member, human rights advocate, and campaigner with particular focus on the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. Liam curates the Twitter feed @ArmsTreaty.
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, grenades, 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 human rights violations and abuses which are perpetrated using conventional arms. The statistics are horrifying.
And just as it sounds bananas that this is happening, it might also sound like we’re talking about distant humanitarian disasters and malevolent, unscrupulous governments in a galaxy far, far away from here. We’re not. The U.S. is the world’s single largest arms exporter, along with the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France, and despite national regulations, has sent arms to some highly questionable people, as have the rest of this group. These nations, which make up the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Permanent Five Members, plus Germany, are suppliers to human rights abusers, despots, and dictators the world over.
The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently visited Asia accompanied by representatives from leading British defense firms (‘defense firm’ being arms dealer parlance for ‘arms dealer’), touting for business. He was closely followed by Foreign Secretary William Hague who, when asked an uncomfortable question about British arms exports by a journalist in Singapore, replied with a standard diplomatic response;
“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.”
David 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. However, 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 has it repeatedly supplied dictators like Gaddafi and Mubarak in places such Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia with arms used for repression.
Secretary Hague, however, does have a point; the UK’s system is one of the most rigorous compared to the rest of the world. The problem being, it’s just not good enough.
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, and traumatised. Additionally, 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 $18bn USD every year, and there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world today, primarily in Africa.
So why does the world pay this terrible price? The simple and sad answer is that the arms trade is worth billions.
Highly profitable arms fuel today’s most violent conflicts. 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 who in turn have committed grave human rights violations. 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 impotency of UN arms embargos has been demonstrated almost every time a UN arms embargo has been placed, severely lacking in both scope and enforceability.
The issue seems to have entered the public consciousness earlier this year after two high profile convictions. First, 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, fuelling some of the most brutal conflicts in modern history, including those of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
One of Bout’s regular customers was the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, coincidentally the second high profile conviction of 2012. In June, 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, aiding, and abetting RUF rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for ‘blood diamonds,’ contravening UN arms embargos at the time. Taylor directly supplied weapons, moral and tactical support, and encouragement for RUF rebels who committed heinous crimes; murder, mutilation, the decapitation of children, and widespread sexual violence. Many of these crimes could not have been committed were the perpetrators not armed.
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 instantly replaced by more arms dealers and war criminals and the endless flow of arms continue to fuel the bloodshed. This tragedy must, and can, be stopped.
Control Arms Campaign
The Control Arms campaign, a global civil society alliance campaigning for a “bulletproof” Arms Trade Treaty (informally know as ATT), is calling for a global, legally-binding Treaty, to control this deadly trade, where none currently exists. Over one million people signed their Million Faces Petition, which was presented to 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 ATT. In 2009, work began in earnest on developing a treaty. The final negotiating conference is now in session, having begun on July 2nd.
Despite these successes, some governments want to weaken the Treaty by not including ammunition for example, governments such as the United States. After three weeks of the scheduled four, negotiations are not going well. Procedural wrangling and delay tactics have managed to take talks off track, though they have not yet been completely derailed.
Of the world’s biggest arms exporters (the UNSC Permanent Five plus Germany), France, Germany, and the UK have voiced strong support for a robust ATT, which includes all conventional arms and ammunition. The US, influenced by interpretations of the Treaty’s scope by the National Rifle Association, is now siding with Russia and China (and a minority of nations such as Iran, Cuba, and Pakistan) in attempting to water down the ATT. The NRA fears the Treaty will interfere with the Second Amendment, a misguided posture given that the ATT explicitly states it is only intended to regulate the transfer of arms across international borders, not domestically.
Pressure needs to be kept on governments to make sure that they do not weaken the Treaty, to ensure that human rights are at its heart. 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 we enter the final week of negotiations, the situation could not be more precarious. A majority of nations are pushing for a strong treaty, with a minority of powerful nations resisting, placing “national interests” above human rights, above human life. The decisions made at the UN in the next few days will directly affect the lives of millions of people affected by armed violence – this is literally a case of life or death.
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, no. 1, 1981.
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