Why Syria is a timely reminder of the need for arms trade regulation.
The situation in Syria can be described as nothing short of heartbreaking. Whilst thousands of Syrians demand the basic political freedoms and human rights which we take for granted in the West, the Assad regime is allowed to stay in power through systematic torture and oppression of its own people. The strength of ideals and values lie with the Syrian people demanding democracy, but the strength of arms and weaponry lie with the Syrian government. It is the Russian government who are keeping the Assad regime in power by supplying virtually all of their arms. Amnesty International’s latest figures estimate that Russia have sold Syria around 3,850 million dollars worth of weapons. Yet this arrangement is not breaking any global agreement or treaty. We have global protocols about the sale of bananas and dinosaur bones, but no global treaty regulating how we sell items such as tanks and bullets. Such weaponry as we have seen, placed in the wrong hands, can cause unbearable misery and destruction.
Let’s be clear: this is not solely a Russian problem. Britain sold arms to Libya under the rule of Gaddafi and currently to Yemen and Bahrain to the value of around $67 million. The United States sold Egypt the anti-protest tanks which were then used against those peacefully protesting in Tahrir Square. This is not even to mention the countless atrocities in Africa made possible because of the global arms trade, such as the oppression of the Bashir regime in Sudan. The self-regulation policy of allowing individual countries to decide who they do arms business with has been an unmitigated disaster.
Amnesty International and Control Arms have for decades advocated a global arms trade treaty (ATT) which would make it absolutely clear that arms sales should not be authorised when there is a substantial risk that they should lead to human rights abuses. After years of diplomatic pressure, this treaty will hopefully be finalised in July at the United Nations. The vast majority of UN member states have supported the idea. In October 2009, only one country (Zimbabwe) voted against the proposal and it now looks very likely that something will be decided at the final meeting in June.
This is, however, not a time to be complacent. As with any large-scale global agreements, there are a variety of opinions and vested interests, which are currently trying to ‘water down’ what will finally be agreed. Some of these compromises may seem insignificant but they can often have a crucial impact on people’s lives throughout the world. For example, at the last set of negotiations, Canada put forward a motion to exclude hunting rifles from the treaty. It is however smaller weapons such as hunting rifles, which are used by Sudanese military forces to commit human rights atrocities against their own people. The National Rifle Association in America has also looked to get small weaponry excluded by spreading wild exaggeration and myths to send their members into a frenzy. The facts are that an international arms trade treaty would not affect the right of individual Americans to keep a weapon or any country to have an army for self-protection provided they remained committed to human rights.
Such vested interests and the arms trade itself have vast amounts of wealth backing them and they are placing huge pressure on governments to make this treaty as limited as possible. However, this is a diplomatic process that can be won by the strength of our convictions and our ideas. The facts remain that every year there are two bullets produced for every person on the planet. In the time it has taken you to read this article, at least one person has died from armed violence somewhere in the world. To save lives this treaty must categorically protect human rights, be comprehensive enough to include a wide range of weaponry, contain strong enforcement mechanisms and enter into binding force.
The UK government has been relatively pro-active in this process. Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that “the UK government remains totally committed to securing a robust and effective Arms Trade Treaty”. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for a treaty “covering all conventional weapons”. Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband called for “comprehensive scope and robust parameters”. However, Prime Minister David Cameron’s voice has been deafening in its omission from the debate. Amnesty International UK calls on as many people as possible to join the campaign and keep the pressure up on the government and its negotiators to push for a robust and bulletproof treaty. They need people ready on social media in July to hold the diplomats to account and ensure that they feel the public pressure and desire for the introduction of human rights policy amongst the arms trade if they start to weaken their negotiating positions. It is no exaggeration to say that this treaty, if effectively written and enforced, can save lives across the world. To get involved, please visit the Amnesty UK website for more information.
This treaty may be too late to save the thousands of Syrians who have been killed because of an unregulated arms trade and violent weapons placed in the hands of unaccountable rulers. We owe it to their memory to ensure that this situation is not allowed to repeat itself in the future.
Sheffield University Amnesty International Group.