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ATT Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 2

Editorial: Blood and canapés
23 August 2016


Ray Acheson 

The selection of the World Trade Organisation—the function of which is to promote trade between states—as the venue to host a meeting on the international arms trade feels a bit cynical. Perhaps not an intentional choice, it nevertheless seems symbolic of the approach of many Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties to their implementation of this Treaty, which they treat a tool to legitimise the arms industry rather than to prevent humanitarian harm. This brings to the fore the importance of states parties and civil society in challenging the treatment of the international arms trade as a legitimate business rather than as a key contributor to armed violence and armed conflict around the world.

“From Yemen to Syria to South Sudan, every day children are being killed and horribly maimed by bombs, civilians are threatened and detained at gunpoint, and armed groups are committing abuses with weapons produced by countries who are bound by the treaty,” warned Brian Wood of Amnesty International in a press release issued at the opening of the Second Conference of States Parties (CSP2). “There must be zero tolerance for states who think they can just pay lip service to the ATT. The need for more effective implementation is painfully obvious.” 

This point was driven home during the CSP2 opening high-level panel, where Geoffrey Duke, a survivor of armed conflict in South Sudan, described the hopes of his young nation being held hostage by violence fueled by arms transfers from other countries. Regrettably, South Sudan is not a unique situation. Weapons exporters continue to send tools of violence to countries and regions that are embroiled in war or that are already awash in weapons, exacerbating organised crime, gender-based violence, corruption, and poverty. 

Sometimes it feels that the ATT has not made much of a difference in the year and a half since its entry into force. It seems that profit margins, rather that people’s lives, drive arms transfer decisions and that the ATT has not yet made a dent in this deadly calculus.

There is an undeniable relationship between decisions to transfer weapons to situations of armed conflict or human rights violations and the economic profits derived by such transfers for producers and exporters. As Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations pointed out, the international arms trade moves about $100 billion a year, far outweighing funds dedicated to official development aid or other efforts for social and economic justice.

When the ATT is seen by many of its states parties as both a trade treaty as well as a human rights or arms control treaty, as was clear from Monday’s general debate, implementation efforts risk opposing the interests of industry with the interests of preventing humanitarian harm. The concept of “responsible” or “legitimate” arms transfers, contrasted with “irresponsible” or “illicit” trade, glosses over the fact that every transfer and use of weapons results in violence in some form and that many so-described legitimate transfers are incredibly destabilising and destructive. 

Death and destruction from arms deals that do not meet the ATT’s human rights criteria will continue if we do not have proper implementation of those aspects of the Treaty, warned the Irish delegation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also emphasised this concern. “At the heart of the treaty are its humanitarian objectives—the moral and legal imperatives to prevent human suffering and to respect and ensure respect for IHL and human rights through the strict control of arms transfers,” emphasised Christine Beerli of the ICRC. States parties must implement the ATT in good faith, “with the highest possible standards of implementation.”

Yet some states participating in CSP2 seem rather keen to postpone consideration of “substantive” implementation issues until next year, arguing that this meeting should continue to focus on “administrative” matters such as establishing a Voluntary Trust Fund and adopting reporting templates. While important, these issues must not supersede a critical discussion on Treaty implementation. Between now and the next CSP, thousands of lives will be lost and millions of people will be displaced from their homes if the arms trade continues to operate as it does now.

“The stakes could not be higher,” argues Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade. In the case of the United Kingdom, he explains, “UK fighter jets are flying over Yemen and people are dying from UK bombs.” A recent article in The Guardian juxtaposes this reality with arms dealers “nursing glasses of champagne and grazing on canapés” at an arms fair hosted by the UK government last month. This is a stark but accurate picture. War profiteering is a booming business and it can be measured in dollars and lives. The ATT was supposed to help tilt the scales in favour of humanity, but so far states parties have mostly failed in this task.

We need to invest more in development and less in weapons so that peace and development can replace blood and violence, argued the Minister of Public Security in Costa Rica. The best way to do this is to stop arms transfers that risk violating human rights or international law and to redirect investments from the multibillion dollar arms industry towards the fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and investing in alternative solutions to and prevention of violent conflict. Over the coming days, we look forward to discussions about how best to ensure the ATT lives up to its core objectives of saving lives and increasing peace and security for all.

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