Most nights our television screens carry news of conflict and death in some part of our world. Weapons and guns are everyday viewing. One reason for this is that the global arms trade is out of control.
It is astounding that, while international trade, patents, chemicals, food, pesticides, hazardous waste, drugs and even bananas are regulated, there is no international treaty governing the trade in conventional weapons. But this might be about to change.
At the UN Diplomatic Conference held in New York until July 27, 150 governments are meeting to thrash out an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – a deal to curb this trade in death. Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy and Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood are both at the conference to help lobby and to press delegates to achieve an agreement that could transform the $1tn arms industry. They both feature in this video of the campaigning stunt on this week’s opening day of the conference.
According to the UN, an estimated 300,000 people die in violent conflict each year – 90% of whom are killed by small arms fire. One of the weapons in widespread production and circulation across Africa is the Kalashnikov (or the AK-47) rifle – dubbed by Oxfam in 2006 as the ‘world’s favourite killing machine’.
Today, some 50 to 70 million rifles are in circulation and have been used in nearly all the African continent’s wars and rebellions in the past 70 years. Between 1990 and 2005, the continent lost more than $18bn every year due to armed conflict.
The irresponsible trade in arms often by unscrupulous arms dealers devastates lives and livelihoods. Arms are pouring into conflict-affected areas, increasing armed violence, fuelling corruption, and destroying all hopes of development.
The talks offer an historic opportunity to create a strong ATT. Countries such as Britain, one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, Mexico, France and Germany are pushing for a “bullet proof” treaty that would cover almost every aspect of the arms trade. Campaign groups hope to see a clause that would ban the sale of any weapons to states where they are likely to be used for human rights abuses.
There is opposition to the treaty. Countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Pakistan are opposed to human rights clauses, and the inclusion of weapon components and ammunition. The US is also opposed to including ammunition after pressure from its powerful gun lobby.
Ammunition is bigger business than weapons. Wars cannot be fought without ammunition. Twelve billion bullets are produced each year – nearly two bullets for every person in the world. In 2010, the UN Group of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire was asked to trace several thousand rounds of illicit ammunition found in the hands of civilians in the capital. The group’s work, and subsequent follow-up investigations, established that the ammunition had been manufactured in Serbia, sold to an agent in Israel, and then legally re-transferred to the military in Burkina Faso. It had then disappeared and re-appeared on the streets of Abidjan in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
Estimates suggest that the annual value of the trade in ammunition for small arms and light weapons (SALW) is $4.3bn – more valuable than the trade in small arms and light weapons themselves (an estimated $2.68bn).
There is also little control or global regulation of sales of weapons parts and components that were valued at more than $9.7bn between 2008 and 2011. If these deals are not regulated under the ATT, it will create a massive loophole large enough for nations to equip their entire armed forces outside of the treaty.
The meeting in New York is the culmination of a worldwide campaign involving Oxfam and Amnesty. Years of campaigning have built global support featuring an International Parliamentarians declaration alongside widespread activism including a recent foray by a tank on the streets of London.
This week we have just delivered more than 620,000 petition signatures, 2,000 MP signatories, the support of 375 faith leaders and organisations, and more than 1,700 doctors and medical professionals worldwide to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to demand a robust ATT. Delegates must now seize the moment to forge a robust bullet-proof treaty.
We can learn from the past 20 years of arms control efforts. Agreements like the Mine Ban Treaty (1997) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) were successful because they established strong, clear and unambiguous legal obligations on all governments and helped to create new international standards.
A failure to deliver a comprehensive ATT will result in many more millions of civilians being killed, injured, raped and forced to flee their homes as a direct result of the irresponsible and poorly regulated trade in arms.
Under no circumstances should countries agree to a watered down treaty full of loopholes and inconsistencies that does not control the arms trade and fails to reduce human suffering.
Decades from now, those looking back at July 2012 should be able to judge the Arms Trade Treaty as a defining moment for global peace, development and security. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly make the world a safer place by reining in a trade that is spiralling out of control.
Roger James is a campaigner for Oxfam South West in Bristol