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
Photo: Getty Images
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Caroline Lucas: The Prime Minister's narrow focus risks our security

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world.

The protection of national security is the first duty of any government. In the dangerous world in which we live -where threats range from terrorist attacks, to public health emergencies and extreme weather events – we all want to feel safe in the knowledge that the government is acting in our best interests.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday marked a change in tone in this government’s defence policies. The MOD is emerging from the imposition of austerity long before other departments as ministers plan to spend £178bn on buying and maintaining military hardware over the next decade.

There is no easy solution to the threats facing Britain, or the conflicts raging across the world, but the tone of Cameron’s announcement – and his commitment to hiking up spending on defence hardware- suggests that his government is focussing far more on the military solutions to these serious challenges, rather than preventing them occurring in the first place.

Perhaps Cameron could have started his review by examining how Britain’s arms trade plays a role in conflict across the world. British military industries annually produce over $45 billion (about £30 billion) worth of arms. We sell weapons and other restricted technologies to repressive regimes across the world, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Kazakhstan and China. Furthermore Britain has sent 200 personnel in Loan Service teams in seven countries: Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – helping to train and educate the armed forces of those countries.  Any true review of our security should certainly have looked closely at the effects of our arms industry- and the assistance we’re giving to powers in some of the most unstable regions on earth.

At the heart of the defence review is a commitment to what Cameron calls Britain’s “ultimate insurance policy as a nation’ – the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent”. The fact remains that our nuclear arsenal is neither “independent” – it relies on technology and leased missiles from the USA, nor is it a deterrent. As a group of senior military officers, including General Lord Ramsbotham and the former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote in a letter to the Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

The cold truth is that France’s nuclear weapons didn’t protect Parisians against Isis terrorists, and our own nuclear weapons cannot be claimed to make us safer than Germany, Spain or Italy. The unending commitment to these weapons, despite the spiralling costs involved and the flimsy evidence in their favour, seems to be closer linked to international grandstanding than it does our national security. Likewise the Government’s further investment in drones, should be looked at closely, with former defence chiefs in the USA having spoken against these deadly pilotless aircraft and describing their use as a “failed strategy” which has further radicalised populations in the Middle East. A serious review of our defence strategy should have looked at the possibility of alternatives to nuclear proliferation and closely investigated the effectiveness of drones.

Similarly the conclusions of the review seem lacking when it came to considering diplomacy as a solution to international conflict. The Foreign Office, a tiny department in terms of cost, is squeezed between Defence and the (thankfully protected) Department for International Development. The FCO has already seen its budget squeezed since 2010, and is set for more cuts in tomorrow’s spending review. Officials in the department are warning that further cuts could imperil the UK’s diplomatic capacity. It seems somewhat perverse that that Government is ramping up spending on our military – while cutting back on the department which aims to protect national security by stopping disputes descending into war. 

In the government’s SDSR document they categories overseas and domestic threats into three tiers. It’s striking that alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” in Tier One is the increasing risk of “major natural hazards”, with severe flooding given as an example. To counteract this threat the government has pledged to increase climate finance to developing countries by at least 50 per cent, rising to £5.8 billion over five years. The recognition of the need for that investment is positive but– like the continual stream of ministerial warm words on climate change – their bold statements are being undermined by their action at home.

This government has cut support for solar and wind, pushed ahead with fracking and pledged to spend vast sums on an outdated and outrageously expensive nuclear power station owned in part by the Chinese state. A real grasp of national security must mean taking the action needed on the looming threat of energy insecurity and climate change, as well as the menace of terrorism on our streets.

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world. It’s crucial we do not allow the barbarous acts carried out on the streets of Paris, in the skies above Egypt, the beaches of Tunisia or the hotels of Mali to cloud our judgement about what makes us safer and more secure in the long term.  And we must ensure that any discussion of defence priorities is broadened to pay far more attention to the causes of war, conflict and insecurity. Security must always be our first priority, but using military action to achieve that safety must, ultimately, always be a last resort.  

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.