Published on July 27th, 2012 | by Jamie Walker0
The importance of the draft UN Arms Treaty
Today is the deadline for the U.N. to agree upon a draft Arms Treaty. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon has implored nations to “show flexibility” in order to “work towards bridging their differences”. Whilst this is both an admirable and logical position to take, the hostile stance of the world’s three largest arms producing countries – China, Russia and the United States – renders such negotiations little more than a pipe dream long term.
The very idea that the arms industry can exist without global regulation in the 21st Century seems ludicrous. It is not that rules don’t exist; it is just that separate sovereign nations have their own distinct rules on the international trade of arms. The flaw in this system is that arms companies and countries are able to circumvent regulations through legal grey areas: a view supported by a 2010 report on arms transfers and exports in Sub-Saharan Africa by the AEFJN; “the lack of international controls means that an overseas subsidiary can secure sales in military equipment which a UK-based company would not be allowed to do.” The primary purpose of a U.N. treaty would be to close these loopholes; standardising what amounts to a $60bn industry worldwide.
One such example of the differences that exist is last month’s friction between Britain and Russia. Russia has a defence contract with Syria, and had planned on transporting attack helicopters through British waters. Britain then used the fact that the Russian cargo ship, the MV Alaed, was insured in Britain to prevent the delivery of those arms. From a humanitarian perspective, this was undoubtedly a good thing; President Assad’s forces could then not use these arms in conflict against his own people. However, if there were international rules in place for the transport of arms, then the British government would not have had to resort to measures that were seen in Russia as underhand and duplicitous.
Whilst the news that a draft is in place is undoubtedly positive, this by no means guarantees that an arms treaty will be ratified. Amnesty International has reported that the current draft is exclusive of ‘gifts’ and military aid. The issue with this is that governments and defence companies will still be able to circumvent the rules; ‘donating’ arms in exchange for a financial or resource based gifts in return. This would be nothing more than a continuation of the arms trade as it stands by not-so-alternative means.
Another issue arising is that India is angling for all contracts which pre-date the draft to be fulfilled. Were this to be inserted into the treaty, those aforementioned Russian attack helicopters would be legally obliged to be delivered. This is particularly scary in light of Russia’s unscrupulous attitude towards the sale of arms. A leaked U.S. Embassy cable from 2007, classified by Moscow ambassador William Burns, states that:
“we should remember that Russian officialdom and the public have little, if any, moral compunction about the arms trade, seeing it instead as a welcome symbol of Russia’s resurgent power and strength in the world.” [source – guardian.co.uk]
One of the staunchest critics of the treaty in its current state is former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He has been particularly critical of the British government supposedly ‘keeping quiet’; suggesting that such silence could result “in a deal so weak that it is not worth the paper it is written on.”
Further issues with the draft treaty emerge when both the United States and China want ammunition to be exempt from any treaty. This is unsurprising, given American gun culture. The Second Amendment enshrines in law the right to bear arms. Any regulation of their sale by American corporations could be seen as unconstitutional. Given that the race for the U.S. Presidency is beginning to kick off in earnest, it is logical for the incumbent Democrat government to be conservative on the issue of arms; not least to appease swing voters ahead of November’s presidential election.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest arguments in favour of such a treaty is the cost to human life that the arms trade supports. The arms trade contributes to the death of up to 750,000 people annually worldwide. For this reason alone, it is important that the draft treaty is ratified, free from compromise.