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Column: The arms trade is global, deadly and very poorly regulated

A global arms trade treaty could save some of the estimated 200,000 people killed every year as a result of armed conflict – but its success depends on the US President holding his nerve, writes Colm O’Gorman. If President Obama can hold his nerve.

Colm O'Gorman

THE ARMS TRADE is big business, worth an estimated $120 billion every year. Rifles, tanks, machine guns, artillery and bullets are sold every day to countries, organisations and individuals.

And it is very poorly unregulated.

There are no international rules to make governments stop weapons and ammunition being sold or given to dictators, war criminals and human rights abusers.

Failed arms trade agreement

Last year, at a UN conference in New York, we were hours away from agreeing an arms trade treaty – one that would regulate the global import, export and transfer of arms. And then President Obama got cold feet.

On the last day of the conference the United States said they wanted more time to discuss the text. Russia and China immediately followed suit and they were joined by a small group of countries like Iran and North Korea that never wanted a treaty in the first place. No treaty, just more deadlock.

But the rest of the world wasn’t willing to sit back and allow the US, Russia and China to block progress. Together with arms control campaigners including Amnesty International, they brought the governments who stopped agreement last year back to the negotiating table.

These talks to agree a treaty are taking place right now in New York and are due to end on 28 March. It’s the best chance we have ever had for a treaty that will make a real difference.

The world’s five biggest arms dealers

To win, we need the support of the world’s five biggest arms dealers – who are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Between them, China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA are responsible for over half the global trade in conventional weapons. All of them have been involved in arms shipments in recent years that should not have taken place.

A contract from September 2012 shows the USA – by far the world’s largest arms trader – agreeing to send a million rounds of sniper rifle ammunition as well as thousands of RPG rockets and mortar bombs to Yemen. The security forces there have massacred hundreds of people taking part in peaceful protests against the government using just those kinds of weapons.

State-owned companies in China ship arms to countries like Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

France has sold vehicles that can be militarised to Sudan, where they have been used by government-backed Janjaweed militia who have committed gross human rights abuses in Darfur

Syria historically received the majority of its weapons and munitions from the Soviet Union, and has continued to do so from Russia, the world’s second-largest arms trader. Russia and China have blocked efforts at the UN to impose an arms embargo and sanctions on Syria.

Amnesty International researchers in Syria have identified huge amounts of Russian and Soviet-era arms and military equipment – ranging from aircraft to cluster bombs – being used in Syria.

Front companies to help supply weapons and munitions

In the UK, there is increasing evidence that foreign brokers used front companies to help supply weapons and munitions to countries where they are likely to be used to commit serious violations of human rights.

This includes an international clandestine supply chain that resulted in several large consignments of Ukrainian tanks, small arms, artillery and light weapons being delivered to South Sudan via Kenya in late 2007 and early 2008.

Amnesty International observed the Ukrainian battle tanks – which are completely unsuitable for urban fighting – being used in civilian populated areas in South Sudan’s Mayom County in January 2012.

The overwhelming majority of countries in the world, especially those dealing with the legacy of conflicts fuelled by unscrupulous arms dealers, want this treaty to succeed, but others are looking for loopholes.

All conventional weapons and ammunition must be included

The United States, for example, has argued against the treaty covering ammunition. It might be wrong, it seems, to give a gun to someone looking to kill civilians, but if they have the gun already it’s fine to sell them the bullets.

China is enthusiastic about a lot of the provisions in the treaty, but argues that it should only apply to arms sales. If the Chinese government wants to give someone a present of a company of tanks, a regiment’s worth of rifles and some mortars, then that’s different.

Both arguments are nonsense. To be effective an arms trade treaty needs to apply to all conventional weapons and the ammunition used in them. It must also cover ‘loans’ and ‘gifts’. There must be no loopholes.

We need a treaty that will prevent weapons getting into the hands of people who will place them in the hands of child soliders, use them to kill civilians, expel communities and to rape and abuse women.

A global arms trade treaty won’t stop human rights abuses overnight. But it is a start.

Recent treaties that banned the use of landmines and cluster bombs have resulted in tens of millions of those weapons being destroyed as countries get rid of their stockpiles, saving countless lives around the world.

What’s happening in New York now could save some of the estimated 200,000 people killed every year as a result of armed conflict if the world’s leaders can reach agreement.

If President Obama can hold his nerve.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

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Colm O'Gorman

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