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.

15 Responses to “The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation”

  1. Philip Painter

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  2. redfitzy

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  3. Jack Fargher

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  4. Daniel Pitt

    The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation //bit.ly/eYL9fn #CAAT #CND

  5. sean gittins

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  6. Kelvin John Edge

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  7. Rocky Hamster

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation //bit.ly/i5JwN7

  8. Anon E Mouse

    Oliver Sprague – Before you complain about arms deals from the current government you might start by asking the last government about the Saudi arms deals the Labour government was involved in.

    That was provable and it stinks.

    It seems Amnesty International has selective amnesia… (again)…

  9. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse, I think Amnesty has gone on recod before criticizing the previous government.

    I think a careful balance has to be struck; at the same time we want to bring countries in from the cold.

  10. hjlownsbrough

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  11. Jon Purdom

    I don’t think any British government from any political party has ever got to grips with the ethics of the arms trade. The business lobby is just too strong and an exchange of weapons for oil, territory, trade etc. is just too tempting for the foreign office.

    Cameron’s only plugging an arms embargo now because he thinks Gaddafi’s finished. If he was still in power he would probably act as a go betwween for the dealers.

    There needs to be a Un resolution for a total ban on sales of all weapons that are likely to be used for torture. Elactric shock devices, oversize handcuffs (used as foot shackles) and so on. This won’t stop the trade and the US and would no doubt veto the proposal, but they did the same with land mines and then stopped selling them. Not in any way a complete solution, but a start.

    Re: the crowd supression equipment – much harder to control, and I would prefer to face dispersal from a water cannon, rubber bullets or CS than live rounds. Perhaps there needs to be a blanket ban on all weapon sales to governments that do not have universal suffrage and free elections every 5 years?

  12. angused

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  13. Richard Howitt MEP

    RT @leftfootfwd: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation: //bit.ly/eYL9fn by @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  14. luther

    RT @myinfamy: The urgent need for global, legally-binding arms trade legislation //bit.ly/eYL9fn #CAAT #CND

  15. Oliver Sprague

    For anyone who has followed the work of Amnesty International over the last two decades in this area, i dont think the term “collective” amnesia is apt. We have consistently called on all governments to tighten regulations and controls, including successive UK governments. It is true that the majority of weapons, including the armoured crowd control vehicles used recently in Libya were licensed by the previous government. We said it was a serious error to grant these licences at the time, it was clearly a terrible decision made my Ministers from the previous government.

    On the issue of “less lethal weapons” – the key is that this equipment can and does contribute to serious human rights violations. In our view it is crucial that rubber bullets, tear gas and related technologies are very tightly controlled and not sold to governments where this is a clear and real liklihood that they will use them to brutally crush their own populations, as we have seen repeatedly across the Middle East region in recent weeks. These items are controlled in the same way that live bullets are controlled, as all are included on international lists of controlled weapons.

    We continue to push for greater international regulations on the trade in Torture equipment. We have made good progress in the EU, but accept that more needs to be done in other fora, for example the UN.

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