Here’s my recent article from the Guardian Comment Is Free, on the Arms Trade Treaty (recently passed by the UN General Assembly), and its relevance to wars like Syria.
The original can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/27/arms-trade-treaty-prevent-future-syrias
At the UN this week, states are deliberating over a proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which would regulate the $70bn worldwide trade of conventional weapons, from small arms like the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle, up to tanks and combat aircraft. The treaty would create common standards and rules for arms transfers, including annual reporting from states and systems to monitor exports, with the expressed aim of protecting international peace and security and reducing human suffering internationally.
The proposed final draft treaty text (pdf), released Wednesday 27 March, on which states will soon vote, would prohibit states from selling weapons when they “have knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes“. As is typical for such negotiations, many states have sought to water down the treaty over the course of its drafting for reasons of realpolitik and, perhaps, through the influence of pro-gun lobbies such as the NRA in the US.
The list of arms covered by the treaty, for example, is more limited than many would like. Nevertheless, the final text is a strong one, including provisions – pursued by civil society groups like Amnesty International – that force states not to authorise exports where there is an “overriding risk” that arms will be used to commit serious human rights abuses (such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture) inside and outside conflict zones.
While diplomats parley in New York, the war in Syria continues apace. This month saw the number of refugees who have fled into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan pass the 1 million mark, with warnings that this number could triple by the end of the year. The number of people killed is now estimated to be around 70,000. Throughout the conflict, organisations have documented widespread human rights and humanitarian abuses perpetrated by both the Assad regime and some rebel groups, including deadly attacks on civilian areas such as the military’s recent ballistic missile strikes in Aleppo.
With no political solution in sight, the engagement of other states has tended toward the deeply unhelpful, as they seek to influence events to their own advantage. Russia and Iran have continued to arm the Syrian military, in defiance of international condemnation. Syrian rebels also have a consistent supply of weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar(apparently, with the help of the US), despite Russia’s protestations that such transfers are illegal under international law.
Despite the desperate humanitarian crisis in the country, the international community appears more concerned with who to arm than how to aid. As Desmond Tutu pointed out on Monday:
“Weapons, not blankets, are pouring into the country.”
The illicit and under-regulated flow of arms can have a disastrous effect on what are initially limited conflicts. A recent report by Amnesty International highlights how, in Côte d’Ivoire, irresponsible international arms transfers directly fuelled the 2010-11 conflict and facilitated war crimes and human rights abuses on both sides. Similarly, the US-facilitated proliferation of small arms to rebels in Libya‘s civil war is thought to be fuelling conflict in Mali and North Africa as these weapons have been transferred into the hands of jihadist groups.
In Syria, international arms transfers have also played their part in escalating the violence. What started as limited anti-government protests in Damascus erupted into the civil war we see today, as weapons flooded in and the conflict intensified.
If passed, the Arms Trade Treaty could not only help prevent conflict escalating by stemming the flow of weapons and ammunition to opposing forces, but it could also prevent the conditions that create conflicts in the first place. By forcing states to assess whether the weapons they sell may be used to abuse human rights either inside or outside conflict zones, and forcing states not to authorise transfers when they will, the ATT could weaken those regimes that rule by terror and force.
In the case of Syria, by making other states consider the humanitarian consequences of selling weapons, the ATT would have the potential to douse the flames of conflict and make it harder for belligerents to continue harming civilians. Had an effective treaty been in place before 2011, the regime’s appalling human rights record and widespread use of torture might even have resulted in a reduced capacity to crack down violently on its own citizens and engage in protracted civil war.
It is vital that those voting at the UN remember that this treaty is about more than just weapons; it is about human lives. Though most states have publicly stated their support for an arms trade treaty, behind closed doors at the UN, there has been a battle between those who want to see a strong convention and those who have sought to limit its scope and effectiveness.
This treaty has the potential to save lives and prevent conflicts from turning into the carnage we see in Syria. The international community has so far failed the Syrian people, but by adopting and ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, they could take a critical step towards protecting civilians from such horrors in the future.