On Monday the second round of negotiations to establish an international arms trade treaty (ATT) began at the United Nations headquarters in New York. These negotiations, and the need for better regulation of the arms trade, could not be timelier.
The courage displayed in the popular uprisings across the Middle East and north Africa over the last month has been fascinating and inspiring. But the shocking retaliatory brutality, especially of the Libyan government, has rightly provoked outrage across the globe, and it is a difficult idea to stomach that for years the previous government sold defence equipment, like teargas and crowd control ammunition, to an unsuitable regime like Gaddafi’s. Whether or not it is the very same British-made equipment being used in the repression, the potential consequences of our trade in arms should give us all pause for thought.
As the prime minister stated almost two weeks ago, this country has some of the toughest arms export controls in the world governing our trade in defence equipment. When processing export licences for arms, Britain considers and evaluates the risks and possible consequences of those sales. We consider factors like regional instability, internal repression, human rights violations as well as the possible effects on our allies and our own security. When situations change, we change accordingly. In response to the violent crackdowns in Libya and Bahrain, the Foreign Office revoked their export licences.
But the harsh reality of the global arms trade is that no matter how tight British arms controls are, we alone cannot stop guns, missiles and other arms from ending up in the wrong hands. Conventional arms are widely available through illegal markets because there is no international agreement on how strict export controls should be. Individual countries and some regions have their own criteria and regulations, but these are often inconsistent with each other and the black market exploits these variations. For example, in weak states like Somalia, a hand grenade can cost as little as £15.
This is why we believe in the need for an ATT and why Britain must continue to be a leader in its creation. The more we can do collectively to regulate the arms trade, the better we ensure our national security, the safety of our service members and the promotion of human rights.
To be clear, the ATT will not be a trade treaty nor is an arms control treaty, as commonly understood, to ban or prohibit the international sale of weapons. It is right that we support our allies in their national defence. There are also hundreds of thousands of highly skilled employees in our defence industry. So, in fact, the ATT will be a treaty to regulate and legitimise arms sales – to set legally binding parameters and criteria that states must take into consideration when making their sovereign decisions to export defence materiel.
But agreeing on common parameters and criteria will be difficult, and the UK’s negotiating team in New York will have its work cut out. This round of negotiations is focused on the scope and criteria of the treaty – the weapons included and the activities it should cover, like importing, exporting, trans-shipment and leasing. Ideally we need a treaty with the highest possible standards and greatest scope, but also one that many of the 192 UN member states can support and implement. As one can imagine, there are multiple countries that remain sceptical about the ATT and, interestingly, Egypt acted as one of their lead spokesmen in earlier negotiation rounds. Nevertheless, we, along with our Liberal Democrat and coalition colleagues, support the UK negotiating team standing firm against such scepticism and doing all that they can to maintain the positive momentum behind this treaty.
Every government needs to consider its national security, promotion of human rights and support for business. The ATT will bring us another step closer to realising this aspiration of a more secure world and help to limit the prospects of a recurrence of the brutality suffered by peaceful protesters in the Middle East, north Africa and elsewhere where repression lingers.
By Jeremy Browne, minister of state for the foreign and commonwealth office and Nick Harvey, Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the Ministry of Defence and has been the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon since 1992.