This morning I volunteered to write Amnesty’s press blog because there’s simply so much to say in the world of guns, tanks, bullets and the like. But the problem is (or perhaps was), because there’s so much to say I didn’t know where to start!
However, the reports of the bloody mass killings in the province of Hama in Syria have to take precedence. The Telegraph reports how Syrian government forces used helicopter gunships and tanks to shell the Tremseh village. The BBC reports that the heavy military assault by government forces was swiftly followed by close-range execution style killings carried out by pro-government Shabiha militia. The fact that such atrocities can be committed with such ease is simply staggering. Particularly given just that less than two months ago, the country faced international repudiation for the bloody massacre in Houla where children were reported to have been slaughtered in their homes.
It is incomprehensible that there are no tighter internationally-agreed sanctions upon Syria given that the government continues to flagrantly and audaciously commit bloody crimes against humanity. As well as a strengthening of the UN presence in the country, there also has to be global agreement that no country should support the arming of Syria government forces. Russia’s recent pledge to stop all new arms deals to Syria is a step in the right direction, but as Amnesty pointed out earlier this week, it means nothing if Russia continues to honour existing arms contracts.
Today’s devastating news of the killings in Syria certainly throws into sharp relief just how poorly regulated the global arms trade is, and why on-going talks at the United Nations for a global Arms Trade Treaty are vital. Although the main debate is taking place in New York as I type, a healthy number of British MPs tackled this important topic in a debate in the House of Commons last night. Tabled by Martin Caton MP, it was the FCO Minister, Alistair Burt, who is responsible for ATT negotiations who assured the House (and other avid ATT-watchers) of the UK Government’s robust commitment to delivering an effective Arms Trade Treaty which will respect human rights.
Specifically he said:
"The problems caused by the unregulated trade in conventional arms need to be addressed. The lack of effective and coherent global regulation fuels conflict, destabilises regions and hampers effective social and economic development. It can also have devastating effects on communities and individuals, with armed violence destroying lives and livelihoods and displacing communities. A lack of regulation means that arms can slip into the hands of those who would use them against our own troops and civilians. That situation has gone on too long, and we need to stop it now."
Mr Burt later added:
“This is an historic opportunity to make the world a safer place. The international community owes it to the people whose lives have been blighted by conflict and armed violence associated with the unregulated trade in arms to use the remaining two weeks to maximum effect. The UK will be working tirelessly to this end. One of the purposes for which the UN was founded was to achieve co-operation in solving problems of a humanitarian character and to encourage respect for human rights. An effective, legally binding ATT will help to do that and more, and we are sparing no effort in our pursuit of that aim.”
Frankly, we at Amnesty couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It’s great that the UK is determined to see as robust an Arms Trade Treaty as possible.
However – as with everything – words have to be followed up by actions.
And the damning report by the Committees on Arms Export Control out today shows that the UK Government still has a long way to go before its arms export mechanism is in efficient working order.
One of the headlines from the MPs’ report was that the UK Government had to revoke 158 arms export licences for weapons expected to head to the Middle East on human rights grounds. Now I suppose it depends on how you read this information. The Government may argue that the fact that they revoked the licences suggests that the new arms export control mechanism is working. But for me, I wonder why were 158 licences initially granted to these countries, given the instability of the region in the first place?
As the Press Association points out the MPs’ report also rebuked ministers for classifying equipment such as sniper rifles, submachine guns and armoured fighting vehicles as "crowd control goods".
The MPs’ Committee – chaired by Sir John Stanley – has urged the Government to be more cautious when considering arms export licences to what they described as “authoritarian regimes” which might use the weapons to facilitate internal repression. Given the bloody scenes from Syria, they’ve got a good point.
Patricia Lewis from the think tank Chatham House delivered an excellent interview on the Today programme (1h09 onwards) this morning addressing the need for the Government to re-consider its approach on arms export controls and reminding us why the Arms Trade Treaty talks are so important. And read what Olly Sprague (from New York), and our partner NGOs had to say about the report here.
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