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The final hurdle for an international arms trade treaty

We're so close to signing one of the world's most historic and important treaties.

Syrian refugees in Turkey
Refugees fleeing violence in Syria have taken refuge at the Kils camp in Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images

In precisely one month’s time, as fireworks flare and dignitaries wave national flags at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, east London, I – and thousands of Amnesty supporters – will be somewhat distracted by events taking place at the United Nations across the waters in New York.  For on 27 July, countries’ governments are expected to agree the most historic and important treaties the world has ever seen: an international Arms Trade Treaty.

At present, the global arms trade is out of control. Despite the arms trade being one of the most profitable and popular industries in the world, it is not globally regulated. That’s pretty concerning, given the amount of weapons and ammunition there is in the world: for example, two bullets exist for every single person, and every day more than 1,500 people die as a result of armed violence.

This is why Amnesty International and our partners in the Control Arms Campaign have long called for a robust, and effective international arms trade treaty – one which has human rights at its core.

Over the last six years, there has been great negotiation and debate, backroom wrangling and passionate arguments.  Many countries are well aware that, if delivered effectively, an international arms trade treaty could save thousands of lives. But some argue that there’s room for compromise on certain aspects of this important legislation. Perhaps. But, there is one principle on which there can be no compromise: no weapons should be transferred to regions where there is a substantial risk that they may be used to commit human rights violations.

When one sees what is happening in Syria, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa it’s obvious to see why.  However, some countries are willing to argue that human rights are not an essential part of the treaty. 

Russia – the globe’s second largest arms exporter – continues to supply weapons to countries with terrible human rights records. Russia´s main customers have included Syria, Sudan and Burma, among others. Meanwhile China supplies significant volumes of small arms ammunition (which are being used by Sudan’s security forces in Darfur), and rockets and anti-vehicle mines to Gaddafi's Libyan regime for example. Neither Russia nor China consider it necessary to include binding rules on international human rights law, international humanitarian law or development.

And worryingly, the USA – which is by far the world’s largest arms trader and accounts for more than 40 per cent of global conventional arms transfers – is also squeamish about binding rules on human rights contained anywhere in this Treaty.  So it’s clear that the UK has its work cut out this July.

The UK has long championed an arms trade treaty. In 2005 our country was one of just a handful of states that led the call for this vital legislation. It’s encouraging to see the ongoing commitment seen across various government departments. However, in keeping with the Olympic spirit, they cannot afford to drop the baton now.

Today – with less than a week to go before delegates gather at the UN for these historic talks – scores of Members of Parliament will demonstrate their support for an effective arms trade treaty by taking part in a photo action. Meanwhile, outside the walls of the Palace of Westminster, passersby may be surprised to see an armoured battle tank weaving its way down Whitehall and across central London to foreign embassies to remind governments to not falter in delivering an arms trade treaty that can save lives. And later today, I and a small delegation from Oxfam and Amnesty International will deliver a petition signed by thousands of our supporters to the prime minister, calling upon him to commit to setting up an Arms Trade Treaty that would effectively prevent weapons fuelling atrocities and abuses.

The UK has fought long and hard for an arms trade treaty. The length of time it has campaigned for this treaty has far outstripped the length of years it has taken to prepare for the London Olympics.

Yes, it would be a PR disaster if on that same day the fireworks don’t go off.  But it would be absolutely catastrophic if the UK and other governments fall short on delivering a human-rights centred treaty: the legacy of which would be far more disastrous, and its impact far more deadly.

Kate Allen is Amnesty International UK Director. Follow the progress of the petition and campaign on Twitter with the #armstreaty hashtag.