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Saturday, December 7, 2013
- Talks to develop greater control of the arms trade have cast a glaring spotlight on the role of diverse countries in fuelling conflicts worldwide, offering governments a historic opportunity to rein in the flow of weapons.
After six years of negotiations, 190 governments have embarked on conclusive month-long talks beginning Monday, which could end in a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty to oversee the arms trade.
China, France, Russia, the US and the U.K. account for 88 percent of the global arms market, where small arms and ammunition alone were valued at 411 billion dollars in 2010.
A patchwork system
Currently, legally binding international standards for the arms trade are non-existent in a patchwork system with many loopholes. About half of all countries lack even basic laws on the export of small arms.
“Without an arms trade treaty, unscrupulous brokers and manufacturers can take advantage of the countries with the weakest regulatory systems. The country with the weakest laws effectively sets the standard for the rest of us.” Natalie Goldring, a senior fellow with the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University, told IPS.
Weak laws give free rein to unscrupulous brokers such as Russian military officer Viktor Bout, currently awaiting trial in the US. Nicknamed the “merchant of death,” Bout’s deals with warlords and human rights violators crisscrossed the African continent, the Middle East and south-central Asia, according to U.N. reports.
Globally, the United States represents a gold standard in terms of diligence in export controls, including the monitoring of exports, licensing, and reporting on exports.
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro in a Jun. 14 news conference on arms exports said his bureau ensures all military assistance “is fully in line with U.S. foreign policy”, adding, “We only allow a sale after we carefully examine issues like human rights, regional security, and nonproliferation concerns.”
However, iwatch News by the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative news organisation, has documented numerous instances of countries receiving large U.S. arms packages and simultaneously struggling with human rights problems, including United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Djibouti, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
According to the State Department’s Military Assistance Report, U.S. firearms, armoured vehicles, and items from a category that includes chemical and riot control agents like tear gas were provided to Algeria and Egypt, where the repression of democratic dissent over the past year has been manifest.
When it comes to the issue of determining whether the weapon in question is likely to fuel human rights abuses, “The U.S. is not the global leader,” Scott Stedjan, senior policy advisor for humanitarian response, Oxfam America, told IPS.
Shedding light on the paradox of tight arms controls alongside less than scrupulous arms deals, Stedjan explained, “The U.S. has a strong set of criteria they apply to all exports. However, it does not take the approach of stopping all transfers if there is a substantial risk they will be used for human rights violation. They take a totality of the circumstances approach.”
The golden rule
The Control Arms Coalition, which includes Oxfam, the Arms Control Association, and Amnesty International, has voiced concerns that this approach will factor into negotiations as one of the U.S. proposals for the treaty.
“The U.S. wants a list of factors to take into account,” Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s manager of Arms Control, Security Trade and Human Rights, told IPS. “This means you’ll have human rights and humanitarian rights, and when you’re considering an export you just take them into account, we call that ‘feel free to ignore’ because it doesn’t really mean anything”
The Control Arms Coalition has developed criteria for an Arms Trade Treaty, including the refusal to supply arms when there is a substantial risk that they will be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian law. The latter is titled “the golden rule”, crucial to the development of a strong treaty, according to the group.
Amplifying the coalition’s position, Amnesty campaigners held a banana-themed demonstration titled “Bananafesto” in Times Square Jun. 27, to raise awareness of a weapons trade less regulated than the exchange of bananas. Activists also posed in body bags outside the U.N. Monday, to mark the start of negotiations.
Keira Knightley, Kevin Spacey and British war photographer Paul Conroy, among others, have also shown their support in a letter sent to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, which presses the need for a strong treaty.
But how arms exporters are to determine when there is a substantial risk that a weapon will be used to commit a serious violation of international human rights presents a challenge for negotiators. You cannot deny arms to countries that have a few isolated incidents of unlawful gun-crime, according to Wood.
Asked what constitutes a ‘serious violation’ Wood told IPS, “It could be a single massive massacre so you can’t say that violations have to be persistent… you can also look at the severity of the harm caused, as well as the persistence and the scale. Is it widespread? If (the problems) are persistent, then they are predictable,” Wood explained.
In terms of measuring the risk of human rights abuse, a key issue is stockpile security. “When exporting arms to the DRC and to Afghanistan where the state itself has partly collapsed, the stockpiles are not properly managed so you know as soon as you send weapons they will leak out to armed groups and the Taliban,” Wood told IPS.
In many ways the treaty is not merely about regulation but also about educating governments and developing expertise within arms export divisions so that they understand and can identify areas where weapons are likely to feed human rights abuses or end up in the wrong hands.
Wood described the attitude of many arms export divisions under the current system, recounting a meeting with three Italian officials. “They said to me, you see that building over there, the lawyers who know about human rights and humanitarian law that’s where they are, we here in the arms exports division we’re just the merchants of death.”