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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.