The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation

The UK government must set the right tone as discussions begin this week. They can do so by tightening up their own procedures and pushing for strong and comprehensive multilateral measures as this week’s negotiations begin.

Oliver Sprague is the Arms Programme Director of Amnesty International UK

Representatives from countries around the world began discussions at the United Nations in New York today to thrash out the details of a global legally-binding piece of legislation relating to the trade in weapons. While this is not the first meeting where the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been discussed, it is probably the first against such a poignant backdrop.


Over the last few weeks the world has watched as weakened governments of Libya, Bahrain and Yemen used all manner of weapons including sniper rifles, shotguns, tear gas, rubber bullets, crowd control vehicles, and even artillery tanks and fighter jets against their own people who had mounted peaceful protests for greater human rights and freedom.

Last week Amnesty International called on the UN to put in place a full embargo on all arms to Libya (which was successfully passed on Sunday), and questioned the UK prime minister’s decision to visit the Middle East with an entourage of arms dealers at this turbulent time.

David Cameron’s response that opponents of his decision are “at odds with reality” is a principle which is very hard to reconcile with the UK’s supposed position on calling for tougher controls on weapons. It is clear that successive UK governments have been too far too lax in granting licences for arms sales to the region.

This has to change.

In July 2010, Amnesty International reported how during the last Labour government, between March 2008 and February 2010, cluster munitions and their components were delivered for use by Pakistan’s army via ships registered in the UK, and managed by UK and German shipping companies. This was in spite of the UK’s commitment to comprehensively ban the transfer and use of cluster munitions.

Certainly countries are entitled to purchase weaponry for legitimate defence and policing purposes, but it is baffling that the sale of UK-produced tear gas, machine guns, water cannon and crowd control vehicles to Bahrain or Libya could have ever been considered reasonable.

It was obvious that risk of their misuse in the commission of human rights abuses was high, risks that should have stopped the issuing of licences then.

Since the ATT was first mooted some ten years ago, the UK government has championed the creation of a rigorous and comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty. It would be severely disappointing if the credibility of the UK Government were to be undermined when the negotiations around the ATT reach such a crucial stage.

The UK government must set the right tone as discussions begin this week. They can do so by tightening up their own procedures and pushing for strong and comprehensive multilateral measures as this week’s negotiations begin.

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