The UN is (probably) going to agree a global Arms Trade Treaty: what's at stake?
Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on conflict, summarizes a new paper, Stay on Target, which lays out the case for governments to hold out for a top quality Arms Trade Treaty as negotiations enter a crucial phase
In the age of austerity it may seem that governments can do nothing but make cuts. But they can still legislate and regulate, and try to make the market work for the public good. In the last few years, some of them have been doing precisely that in the most deadly market of all – the arms trade. From Latin America to Europe, and through three separate regional agreements in Africa, there has been an array of new regulations on the arms trade. Some of them work better than others, but that’s not the point. A patchwork of national and regional controls isn’t the best way – at least by itself – to regulate a trade that’s as global as everything else.
Many governments and NGOs realized this years ago, and have spent almost a decade campaigning for an international Arms Trade Treaty. It’s been a brave and courageous campaign. Indeed, its critics might say that it’s out of its time. A new international treaty, agreed at the UN? When hopes of the UN are a shadow of what they were in the 1990s? And ‘a la carte multilateralism’ of the G20, BRICs and regional organisations has replaced the UN as the core of more complex international relations?
All right, I exaggerate. But you know what I mean. If the UN cannot agree an arms embargo on Syria, which seems a no-brainer to most of the world, is it likely to agree an international Treaty to control the arms trade?
Right now, though, we should hold back our scepticism. The UN is not what it was, but the campaign to get it to agree an Arms Trade Treaty has been outstandingly successful. In 2003, the Treaty was just an idea in a report from one of my colleagues, Debbie Hillier. In 2006, the UN General Assembly welcomed the idea. In 2009, it started negotiations. This July, there’s a conference in New York scheduled to agree it. In the world of international law, this is greased lightning. It’s like Usain Bolt has taken over the UN.
But there’s no point in any new regulation unless it works – to make the market operate for the public good. And that applies every bit as much to a UN conference to agree a useful Arms Trade Treaty. The vast majority of governments want an effective Treaty that will have a practical impact on curbing the irresponsible arms deals that fuel human rights abuses or war crimes – or waste a vast amount of money that could be better spent on, say, development. But like every idea for effective regulation, there are those who want to water it down. On the arms trade, they’re governments like Syria and Iran, and – an odd companion – the US, which may have made a catastrophic error when it insisted that the process to agree the Treaty should be by consensus.
Because of that, and the opposition of some, it’s impossible to tell what will come out of the UN conference in July. There’s an overwhelming humanitarian and developmental logic for a tough Treaty that curbs irresponsible arms deals, covers all conventional arms and ammunition, and covers every part of this complex and sometimes sordid global market, with its sleazy arms brokers who may never touch a gun, but wheel and deal to send them to war criminals around the world.
Between now and July, there should be a clear message to those governments that have championed the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty for nearly ten years. Hold out for a good one. Don’t compromise. In the next few weeks, another one of my colleagues, Deep Basu Ray, will be publishing five short papers on the reasons why. But today is my turn. With Amnesty International, Saferworld and others, we’re publishing a paper, Stay on Target, which lays out the case for the UK Government to hold out for an Arms Trade Treaty that will actually work.
Not surprisingly, the UK, like the EU, gets piqued at suggestions that it has less influence in our new multipolar world. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, speaks of a ‘renaissance’ in British influence – not least in standing up for the values of human rights and poverty reduction. Whether that influence counts for much will be put to the test in the next few months. Under two different governments, the UK has vigorously backed the idea of a strong, effective Arms Trade Treaty since 2004. Can it help deliver that? Rather than a weak treaty that would do almost no good?
We’re about to find out.
And here’s Ed ‘talking to the paper’
Tomorrow, Martin Butcher shows why all this matters – the link between an ATT and averting disaster in the Sahel