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Ammunition captured from SAF in South Kordofan in July 2011
Ammunition captured from SAF in South Kordofan in July 2011
Image: Amnesty International Ireland

Ireland and the arms trade - what needs to change?

This summer, Ireland will join other UN states to discuss how to improve the “poorly regulated” trade of conventional weapons – and ways to stop military equipment falling into the wrong hands.
May 6th 2012, 12:00 PM 6,373 14

UN MEMBER STATES are meeting in New York soon to discuss a treaty on the trade in conventional weapons – with the existing system criticised as being “poorly regulated”.

Currently, no set of internationally agreed standards exist in order to ensure that military equipment is exported appropriately – or kept out of the wrong hands. As such, the UN General Assembly has arranged to hold a conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which is to begin 2 July.

Many UN member states, including Ireland, have expressed concern in recent years over the absence of a global standard framework that could be used by countries to guide decision-making in relation to arms transfers.

In 2007, the Irish state declared its commitment to the early adoption of a comprehensive, legally binding international instrument to cover all aspects of trade in conventional arms.

Ireland and the arms trade

While Ireland is not viewed as a key player in the arms industry by global standards, people are often surprised that the country manufactures anything at all, spokesman for Amnesty International Ireland Justin Moran told TheJournal.ie: “We don’t do what a lot of people think of when ‘arms industry’ comes to mind – like building guns and ships and tanks – mostly it’s electronics, technical equipment, etc,” he said.

Last September, the first report under the Control of Exports Act 2008 was published – showing that Irish companies had been authorised to export €90 million worth of goods to be used in munitions. The Control Exports Annual Report also gives annual breakdowns from 2008 to 2010 for Irish arms export licenses: it shows that there were 508 licences awarded in 2008 for arms that fell under the individual dual goods, global, and military categories; 509 licences were given in 2009; and 879 were given in 2010.

The country’s relationship with the arms industry has caused controversy in the past – not least of all when it emerged that the National Pension Reserve Fund (NPRF), founded in 2001 to support public sector pensions from 2025, had been investing in munitions industries.

Following the introduction of a Bill by the Green Party in 2006 pressurising the NPRF to invest ethically, and Ireland’s ratification of the international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions (Convention on Cluster Munitions) that same year, it was decided that NPRF would divest from companies involved in cluster munitions production under the Cluster-Munitions and Anti-Personnel Mines Bill.

However, concerns still remain about arms trading in Ireland. In 2008, a group of governmental experts released a report that noted weapons “being traded in the illicit market can be used for terrorist acts, organised crime and other criminal activities”, and noted the need to prevent the diversion of conventional arms from the legal to illegal market.

Ireland has subsequently called for a new system in which all transactions would be subject to an assessment that probed for illegality or “probable negative impact”, as well as guaranteeing transparency and a monitoring programme.

Current regulations and criticisms

Irish arms regulations as they exist currently cover both military goods and dual-use goods (ie products that could have military or civilian applications).

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, which oversees the export of convention weapons from Ireland, has noted that although the country does manufacture and export goods with dual-use and military applications it is not a producer of arms “in the normal sense” – and that Ireland’s economy, with its “high technology base”, will mean such goods will manufactured.

However, it also recognises that some of the high tech material produced in the country could, in the wrong hands, be used in the development, production or delivery of weapons of mass destruction. The Department says that, currently, the exports of military goods and of controlled dual-use goods “are only authorised following careful case-by-case examination of their consistency with our international obligations and foreign policy objectives.”

However, Amnesty International Ireland has condemned the global arms trade – saying that it is “out of control”.

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, said:

Every year hundreds of thousands of people are killed, injured, raped and forced from their homes because of the badly controlled international arms trade. For more than ten years we’ve been fighting for a treaty that will cover all conventional weapons, including ammunition and heavy weapons like rocket launchers.

O’Gorman explained that the treaty should include the ‘Golden Rule’, which would specify that no arms to be sold if there’s a substantial risk they’ll be used to commit serious human rights abuses.

“Put simply, no arms for atrocities, no arms for human rights abusers. This is the best chance in a generation to regulate an out-of-control arms trade,” he said.

In this video, Emmannual Jal – a musician and former child soldier – explains why the effective monitoring of the arms trade is needed to protect the world’s most vulnerable people:

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The human rights group claims that certain countries wish to “water-down” the ATT and have underlined the importance of  international pressure being placed on arms-producing nations – particularly the ‘top six’, ie the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - to ensure that the agreement would apply to all conventional weapons, without exception.

In order to avoid a situation where arms are being used to contribute to atrocities, conflict or poverty – Amnesty International insists that every arms deal should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Proposals for change

As a UN member state, Ireland has publicly called for the ATT to encompass the following:

  • All conventional arms and related technology – with language to cover future technical developments
  • An annex specifying at least the categories covered, with sufficient precision to prevent loopholes
  • All transactions involving trade in armaments – including specifically import, export, re-export, transfer, transit, transshipment, technical assistance and transfer of technology, and brokering activities

The Department of Foreign Affairs told TheJournal.ie that Ireland strongly supported the process of developing strict controls on arms and works actively to promote the objective of strengthening arms controls globally.

It said that Irish officials would be attending the UN Diplomatic Conference – from 2-27 July 2012 – in the hopes of reaching an agreement a global Arms Trade Treaty: “Ireland has been active from a very early stage in supporting work towards an ATT, including through co-sponsorship in 2008 of a UN Resolution establishing an Open-Ended Working Group to consider the elements that might be included in an ATT,” the DFA said.

It added:

Ireland’s objective is to secure a legally-binding and comprehensive treaty with universal application, one that is as robust as possible, and which takes full account of human rights obligations and international humanitarian law.
Ireland has participated fully in the EU Working Group on the ATT and we will continue to work with the EU and with other like-minded countries to agree an instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.

Click here if you would like to sign Amnesty International’s petition demanding an effective Arms Trade Treaty

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Jennifer Wade

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