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
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle