ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 3

Bringing the arms fair to the arms treaty
13 September 2017

Ray Acheson

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By this past Sunday afternoon in London, over 100 people had been arrested blockading the set-up of the world’s largest arms fair. For seven days, activists blocked traffic with their bodies in order to prevent trucks with weapons from reaching the ExCeL centre in the Docklands. On Monday, artists opened an art fair featuring scathing critiques of the war profiteering to be on display this week at the Defence and Security Equipment arms fair.

Inside the fair, which opened on Tuesday, representatives of some of the most egregious human rights abusers in the world are perusing the latest technologies of violence. Many of these representatives, invited by the UK government to attend the fair, are from countries on the UK government’s own watch list for human rights violations.

Meanwhile, over in Geneva, states are gathered for the Third Conference of States Parties (CSP3) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Some of the governments speaking here likely have representatives over at the arms fair. The UK certainly does. Five UK ministers were due to speak at the arms fair. But not one UK minister was present at the opening of CSP3. A few years ago, the UK government was considered a major “champion” of the Treaty. Today, it apparently prefers to promote arms sales rather than regulate them. Britain’s own arms companies are racking in billions of pounds from conflicts worldwide. And they are not alone.

“People are not stupid,” said Farah Karimi, Executive Director Oxfam Novib, during Tuesday afternoon’s discussion about the links between the ATT and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “They see that words do not match states’ actions.” But at this year’s CSP, states aren’t even offering words. After two days of discussions, not a single state party or signatory has mentioned the arms fair. A group of Latin American states appealed to states to stop arms transfers to Venezuela in the midst of ongoing violence, but there has not yet been any acknowledgement of this appeal by the relevant exporters (or anyone else). There has also not been any similar calls made by for the cessation of transfers to the parties to the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Iraq, or any other loci of armed violence. Costa Rica was the only state to mention the conflict in Yemen by name. All other references to reality and appeals to uphold either law or conscience were left to civil society organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

During the SDG discussion, Mexico asked how our community can go beyond the ATT to reduce violence and arms flows. With the shocking and flagrant violation of the Treaty’s rules and norms, which are met with no credible or visible consequences, it’s hard to imagine even utilising the ATT effectively let alone going beyond it.

But thinking beyond the ATT may be the only thing we are left with to actually reduce human suffering, save lives, protect cities and societies, prevent gender-based violence, impede criminal networks, and foster sustainable development. Mozambique mentioned that is hosting a meeting in Maputo in December to think about actions states can take to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Elaborating new standards, political and legal, on the use of weapons and tying those standards to arms transfers could be an effective way to make real change in this landscape.

At the end of the day, however, the problem with the ATT, the use of explosive weapons, and many other issues related to armed violence and conflict, is that states are not respecting the rules or standards they set or sign on to. Claiming that international humanitarian law is sufficient whilst transferring weapons that are used to bomb cities and kill civilians en masse is an egregious affront to that law and undermines any possibility of holding others to account for their actions.

Right now, profits are being protected above people. The ATT was supposed to give us a tool to change that, but until states parties decide to confront those violating it, the Treaty will remain vastly insufficient to counter the death and destruction currently raging throughout the world.

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