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Arms trade treaty is just a fig leaf


The British government has been lobbying Bahrain to buy Eurofighter jets. Ronnie MacDonald under a Creative Commons Licence

After almost 20 years, the Arms Trade Treaty has finally come into force, but what will it change? Will it stop arms-dealing nations from selling weapons to human rights abusing regimes? Will it stop governments like Britain’s from selling vast quantities of arms to dictatorships like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? Will it stop countries like Russia from arming the Assad regime in Syria?

No. The treaty will do none of these things, for the simple reason that it has specifically been designed not to.

Despite some of the rhetoric from those promoting it, the treaty is only concerned with regulating arms sales, not reducing them. This is made clear in its introduction, which acknowledges ‘the legitimate political, security, economic and commercial interest... in the international trade in conventional arms’. The arms companies, which were represented on the British delegation negotiating the treaty, could not have asked for more.

Governments in the main arms exporting countries have joined major arms companies like BAE Systems in stressing that the treaty will not create any new obligations on them or change the way they do business. Everything will stay the same, but now they will have another legalistic fig leaf of international legitimacy to hide their arms exports behind. Far from challenging the status quo, it is far more likely that the treaty will serve to entrench it.

It is not more rules that are needed to end the arms trade; it is a real and meaningful shift in government policies and priorities.

On paper, many governments that have signed up to the treaty, including Britain, already have strong and robust arms control systems, but it is not words that count, it is action. And the actions tell a different story. Far from trying to discourage arms sales, Britain has consistently pulled out all stops to try and maximize them. Every year the government publishes its Human Rights and Democracy Report; the most recent report listed 28 ‘countries of concern’ and yet in the last 12 months it has licensed weapons to at least 18 of them.

The government’s role doesn’t just extend to authorizing and overseeing sales; it also actively promotes them, putting a lot of time, effort and political capital into doing so. Every year it compiles a list of ‘priority markets’ for arms sales and, as usual, this year’s list includes a number of dictatorship and human rights abusers, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bahrain – all of which have been courted for arms sales. Only last month Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was in Bahrain, openly lobbying the regime to buy Eurofighter jets.

In September this year the Docklands in East London will play host to DSEI 2015, a biennial government-sponsored arms fair that is among the biggest in the world. DSEI, which will be unimpeded by the Arms Trade Treaty, will bring hundreds of major arms companies and arms dealers together with some of the worst dictators and warmongering regimes. This deadly carnival of the grotesque could not take place without the practical and political support of government ministers and their departments.

The promotions don’t stop at hosting arms fairs and trade missions. Britain even has a government department dedicated to the promotion of arms sales: the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organization (UKTI DSO). Despite its obscure name and low profile, UKTI DSO is right at the heart of the government’s support for the arms trade, employing 128 civil servants for the sole purpose of boosting international arms sales.

The government’s predictable response is to say that arms sales are vital for jobs and security, but this is absolutely no justification for their support. Arms sales, which fuel insecurity and abuse around the world, only account for 1.4 per cent of British exports and just 0.2 per cent of the jobs. On top of that, the industry receives an annual public subsidy, which one study estimates to be around $1 billion.

This money would be far better spent on investing in growing industries, like green energy, and tackling the real threats to our security, such as energy security and climate change. Such a monumental shift in priorities would have the added benefit of creating thousands of new jobs and boosting the economy.

However, as long as the powers, priorities and mechanisms of government are focused on pushing arms exports then there will be no meaningful change. What is needed to challenge the status quo is not another round of vague and ineffective treaties that can be ignored, re-interpreted and hidden behind at will.

What is required is a radical change in policy and a change from the mindset that puts helping companies secure lucrative (for them, not the taxpayer) deals before all else. The simple fact is that Britain, and other countries, could stop arming tyrants right now, but that doesn’t need an Arms Trade Treaty. It needs the political will.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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