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.

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. 

 

Refugees fleeing violence in Syria have taken refuge at the Kils camp in Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.