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Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 8, No. 4

Editorial: Assistance for arms control or arms proliferation?
9 June 2016 


Ray Acheson

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Wednesday’s discussion focused on the provision of international cooperation and assistance for the implementation of the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA), International Tracing Instrument (ITI), and also the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The transfer of funds and training to countries requiring assistance implementing their commitments is crucial to the effective realisation of the objectives of these instruments. However, the assistance provided is at risk of being undermined by arms transfer practices—including by assistance-providing states—that violate international and national laws. 

While many donor countries are providing cooperation and assistance to states through domestic, regional, or international mechanisms, they can also often be found transferring weapons to the same countries they are assisting or to other countries in their regions. In many cases, the violence and instability facilitated by the weapons pouring into conflict-affected regions directly undermines attempts to reduce the circulation of small arms and light weapons, safely manage stockpiles, or prevent human rights violations.

One does not need to dig deeply to see examples of this, even when focusing on just one conflict.

In its statement on this international assistance, the United Kingdom said it is “committed to providing assistance to reduce the drivers of instability in conflict-affected countries,” including through the provision of over £1 billion to this effort. Yet the UK is actually exacerbating the drivers of instability through the provision of weapons and other military equipment to conflict-affected countries. “More than £3 billion of British-made weaponry was licensed for export last year to 21 of the Foreign Office’s 30 ‘human rights priority countries’—those identified by the government as being where ‘the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations take place’,” reports The Guardian. Such countries include Saudi Arabia, to which it has issued 122 licences worth £2.8 billion in military exports since it began bombing Yemen in March 2015. The UK in its statement spoke about its commitment to the implementation of the ATT, yet is facing legal action in the High Court for its transfers to Saudi Arabia. It has already been found to be breaking national, EU, and international law and policy by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Canada reiterated its intention to ratify the ATT. Yet at the same time that it pursues accession to a treaty meant to prevent arms transfers to those engaged in human rights violations, the Canadian government has also authorised export permits for a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for weaponised armoured vehicles. Under existing national export control policy, Canada must determine that “there is no reasonable risk” that Canadian-made goods might be used against civilians before an export permit can be issued. The government has not explained if or how it has concluded there is no reasonable risk that weapons transferred to Saudi Arabia would be used against civilians, despite mounting civilian casualties in Yemen. The foreign minister has even defended the arms deal by arguing that if Canada didn’t sell them the weapons, someone else would.

The list of examples could go on, but these few provide a snapshot of the key challenge to the UNPoA, ATT, or other agreements to regulate the flow of conventional weapons. What is written on paper, in international agreements or domestic legislation, seems to be frequently superseded by economic interests or foreign policy objectives. Even governments that pride themselves on protecting human rights are engaged in weapon sales to countries with well-documented human rights abusers.

In reviews of the UNPoA and ATT and other arms control agreements, it is crucial to pay attention to how the rhetoric in the conference room matches up to the reality outside. It is also important to follow the money. If donor countries supporting projects to implement arms control agreements are also contributing to flooding conflict-ridden regions with arms, it directly undermines the critical work being done here at the UN and at national and regional levels to prevent armed violence and conflict.

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