Why an arms trade treaty won't stop the arms trade

As UN negotiations on the proposed arms trade treaty resume, why are long-time arms control campaigners sceptical of an agreement? An op-ed from Ann Feltham of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Ann Feltham
18 March 2013

Surely it will be a good thing, the arms trade treaty? After all it's supported by human rights  organisations like Amnesty International, development charities including Oxfam and many thousands of individuals around the world who see the disastrous consequences of the global trade in arms. A growing number of governments are backing a treaty which could be agreed later this month. 

It seems that only the UK's Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and some of its counterparts in the European Network Against Arms Trade are sceptical. Why are these latter groups, which have campaigned for an end to the arms trade for decades, not jumping for joy at the massive support for an international arms trade treaty? After all, many of the sceptics were at the forefront of the campaign for a landmine ban in the 1990's - what's the difference?

The answer is the military-industrial complex. Landmines, even at their most sophisticated and many were homemade, were of marginal interest to the global arms corporations. The sale of fighter jets, tanks, guns, communications equipment - that, on the contrary, is central to the companies' profits and share prices. Many of those working for an arms trade treaty believe it will stop authoritarian regimes acquiring military equipment. Governments know it won't and wouldn't back it if it did. 

The real priority - flogging arms

For nearly 50 years UK taxpayers have funded an arms export promotion unit. With around 150 staff it is part of the official support given to help arms companies flog their deadly wares overseas. It complements the high-profile prime ministerial sales trips to the repressive rulers of Saudi Arabia and, earlier, to Libya's Gadaffi. 

Selling arms is the UK government's policy priority;, controlling them is not. The Prime Minister led a 15 strong-ministerial delegation, most of them with an arms sales brief, to the 2012 Farnborough Airshow. A junior minister was dispatched to the arms trade treaty negotiations taking place in New York at the same time.

The UK government may be working for an arms trade treaty, but it is clear that it has absolutely no intention to stop pushing arms sales. Rather as Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt acknowledged in April 2012 the treaty will "...make British industry more competitive. The Government and the UK defence industry enjoy a close working relationship on the Arms Trade Treaty, with industry representation on the UK delegation". 

The UK government is happy to create the impression that a treaty would stop weapons to repressive regimes. The reality is different. A Foreign Office official confirmed in December 2012 that Middle East countries had been told that after a treaty it would be business as usual - no additional controls would be applied.

An unacceptable trade

Those campaigning for a treaty point out that there is less international regulation of arms sales than bananas. However, in many countries in the world the arms trade is regulated. Easily the world's biggest arms exporter, the United States has the toughest regulations of the lot. European Union states, also major sellers, have their controls too. The UK likes to boast that it has one of the "most robust and efficient export regimes in the world". Yet, despite these regulations, the arms trade, with its adverse effects on peace, human rights and economies, continues to thrive.

An arms trade treaty is likely to be another regulation on paper that allows the arms business flourish. For CAAT and the other sceptics there are additional worries. A treaty could further legimitise the trade, making it seems a business like any other rather than one with deadly consequences.

To make a real difference we need governments, including that in the UK, to stop promoting and supporting the arms companies. We need the trade to become as morally unacceptable as the slave trade.


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