Arms Trade Treaty

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:45 pm on 12th June 2012.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 8:45 pm, 12th June 2012

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the strong contribution made by the UK Government as one of the driving forces behind the arms trade treaty; calls on the Prime Minister to publicly affirm his Government’s commitment to the establishment of a robust human rights-compliant arms trade treaty in 2012; and further calls on the UK Government to insist, during the July 2012 formal negotiations, that the sale of arms shall not be authorised where there is a substantial risk that it will lead to serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

I thank Mr Agnew, Ms McCann, Mr Wells, Mr McCallister and Mr Lyttle for joining me in co-sponsoring the motion. This is an exceptionally important issue, and the weeks ahead are an exceptionally important time. Next month, when member states gather in New York to negotiate a new international arms treaty, a unique opportunity will open up to increase the protections of ordinary citizens around the world against the damaging, lethal and tragic effects of illegally traded arms.

A robust global arms treaty is desperately needed to stop the irresponsible transfer of arms that fuels atrocities such as the one that we are witnessing in Syria these days. That conflict has already taken the lives of 10,000 people, and its impact never ceases to shock us. Many of the arms being used were procured through what have been, up to now, perfectly legitimate means. A treaty is also needed because we need to do something about the cost to Africa, which is estimated at $18 billion a year, of armed conflict and because of the corruption of the defence industry, which is estimated to cost some $20 billion a year. That undermines those who legitimately seek to make a living in that sector.

It is exceptionally important that the United Kingdom Government continue to take a leadership position during the talks in New York next month. It has taken years of diplomacy to reach this point. That diplomacy has been built around a strong and progressive coalition of nations: the European Union in its entirety, the United States under the current Administration and Administrations such as Australia and others around the world. However, states such as Syria and Iran and, to a lesser extent, China and Russia, seek to undermine the opportunity that is opening up. They seek to allow a deregulated arms trade. They do not want the international human rights standards that are available to us today to be made available to every citizen of this globe, particularly citizens who are in conflict zones and are being subjected to the onslaught of illegally traded arms.

I am very happy today to join colleagues and a much wider coalition of very many non-governmental organisations such as Article 36, Transparency International, Saferworld, Amnesty International and Oxfam, to mention just a few, in strongly recommending that all European Union Governments, but particularly the United Kingdom Government, do everything that they should during the forthcoming negotiations to secure a global arms trade treaty that will unambiguously require states not to transfer arms where there is a substantial risk that they may be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international rights law or international humanitarian law, including gender-based violence such as rape and other forms of sexual violence.

They should secure a treaty that will make sure that we can continue to divert significant resources towards sustainable development and not away from it into arms trade, which covers a comprehensive scope of equipment and material that would fall under its control, including all conventional weapons, related articles and equipment that are used in military and internal security operations, or parts and components, technologies, technical expertise and equipment for making, developing and maintaining those articles.

The treaty should include all types of international trade, transfers and transactions, including imports; exports; re-exports; transits; trans-shipments; commercial sales; state-to-state transfers; loans and gifts; brokering; transport and finance. It should provide for robust mechanisms for prior risk assessment, end-user assurances, brokering controls and criminal sanctions for activities that are not authorised in accordance with the treaty.

It should require that all states keep records of authorised transfers for at least 20 years. It should ensure transparency through annual public reports by states on all transfers and on how they have implemented their obligations under the treaty. Finally, it should ensure that the existing rights of victims of armed violence are recognised, including that states commit to providing them with assistance for recovery, rehabilitation, justice and inclusion.

This is a monumental opportunity for the United Nations and for those of us who live in democracies where we appreciate, uphold and cherish international standards of human rights. It is an opportunity for us to do our bit for young people in particular across the globe in places such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places overrun by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is fuelled by illegal arms. It is a way for us to send a message to Syria and other regimes, which treat their civilians as cannon fodder and which subject their civilians to inhumane treatment and death, that the terms of international trade in armaments are changing.

I am very happy to say that it is a treaty that comes with the sponsorship of those nations to which all in this House feel a greatest allegiance. It is also a treaty that allows us to reflect on our own history. Briefly, I want to recognise the opportunity that I had this morning, with Mr Wells, to meet some of our own victims of conflict. It was a meeting that reminded us of the impact that illegally traded weapons had in our own situation. Let us be a lesson in history to all other parts of the world that are caught up in conflict that illegally traded arms do as much damage and devastation and are as pointless a tool in the purpose of anyone’s political objectives.

I thank Members at this late hour for staying on to make sure that our voice is heard and that we get the opportunity to send a strong message to the United Kingdom Government and the European Union Governments.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. After the dullness of the previous two debates, it is good to have something exciting to talk about. This is a serious issue, and it is not often that we get the opportunity to speak on international affairs in this Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to do so.

There are a number of questions that we need to answer. Is there a need for an arms trade treaty? What can be achieved by states in the UN agreeing to that arms trade treaty? Even if there is agreement, can it be enforced?

So, is there a need? The arms trade is unregulated, and states need to accept that the absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of conventional arms is a contributory factor in the outbreak of conflict and abuse of international humanitarian law and human rights.

The arguments for an arms trade treaty from a humanitarian and human rights perspective is overwhelming. One person dies every minute as a result of armed violence. Millions more are injured, while others are displaced and lives ruined. Irresponsible arms transfers prolong conflict, cause poverty and destabilise regions. Conall gave the example of armed conflict in Africa. According to Amnesty International, that costs $19 billion per year, roughly the same amount that Africa receives in aid.

What can be achieved by the UN agreeing to an arms trade treaty? A comprehensive treaty with robust implementation and verification measures can help to prevent the transfer of arms where there is evidence that they will used to seriously violate international humanitarian law and human rights. Some states and regions have agreements but most are not legally binding and are easily exploited by unscrupulous arms dealers. Quite simply, they do not work. Self-regulation will never work in the arms industry.

Conall talked about illegal arms transfers. It is not just about illegal arms transfers. It is also about what at the moment are considered legal transfers of arms. One of the most important questions is whether an arms trade treaty can be enforced. First, there needs to be willingness among states, and there are indications that most states support the move towards an arms trade treaty.

In 2009, at the UN General Assembly, states voted 153 to 1 to move towards formal negotiations, which will take place next month. So, on the face of it, there is support, but the treaty must have strong enforcement measures otherwise it will not be worth the paper on which it is written. Although the treaty will create an international framework of legal obligation, it will be implemented at a national level. Under an arms trade treaty, decisions on arms transfers will still be made by national governments. In that context, a treaty would help to introduce new levels of transparency and accountability into the international arms trade, particularly with regard to public reporting mechanisms.

The bottom line is that the sale of arms should not be authorised where there is a substantial risk that it will lead to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. Of course, that does not deny states the right to arm and defend themselves, but every right brings responsibilities. According to the UN:

“arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation are essential to the maintenance of international peace and security”.

It is for those reasons that the world needs an arms trade treaty, with common international standards on the transfer of arms.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank Amnesty International for its work in securing this cross-party motion and ensuring that the Northern Ireland Assembly has a say in advance of the treaty negotiations.

Northern Ireland knows only too well the devastation that can be caused by the end use of the product of the arms trade. An arms trade treaty will go some way to ensuring that governments are not sponsoring human rights atrocities in other parts of the world through the licensing of arms to areas where there is a substantial risk that it will lead to serious violations of human rights.

Whilst there will be advocates in this House and elsewhere of a free market economy, the fact is that we have a mixed economy where, through regulation and taxation, we discourage the purchase of demerit goods, which are goods that are deemed harmful to society. For example, cigarettes now come with the warning “Smoking kills”, which is very true, but a cigarette is nothing compared to an AK-47. I make that point as some in the arms trade will argue against the arms trade treaty or will want a light-touch approach, but we must seek to improve regulation of the arms trade on an international basis. Others may say that existing legislation is sufficient. However, I alert Members to the ‘Dispatches’ programme on the after-school arms clubs, in which comedian and activist Mark Thomas helped two Amnesty International school groups set up as arms brokers, exposing the loopholes in regulations and showing that getting round the regulation was child’s play. I want to make another point using the cigarette/AK-47 analogy. Some will seek to exclude small arms from any arms trade treaty as if they are somehow benign. Weapons such as AK-47s are considered small arms and are far from benign. In fact, they are lethal and can be used as tools of oppression, which is why they must be covered by the treaty.

The focus of the treaty must be on the protection of human rights, and that must override any economic considerations. The success of the treaty will, to a large extent, depend on the definition of the term “substantial risk” in the motion. For example, any treaty that permits the export of arms to regimes such as Libya or Bahrain does not, in my opinion, go far enough. It is worth noting that, while I welcome the work of the UK Government in supporting an arms trade treaty, they have exported arms to those oppressive regimes in the past. Equally, a regime that continues to oppress its citizens but has made small but significant improvements in its human rights record should not be seen as a legitimate recipient of arms exports. That was the language used by the UK Government in justifying the sale of 72 Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia in 2006, and we must guard against such language. There must also be a responsibility on states exporting arms to track those arms to their end use to prevent the sale of arms to oppressive regimes through a third party state.

While the motion calls on the UK Government to act, we must ensure that our own house is in order in Northern Ireland. In the past five years, Invest NI has given approximately £7 million to companies engaged in the arms trade. When Thales Air Defence, the recipient of that public money, presented to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I asked where it exported arms to, and its response was at best vague. When I then asked directly whether it exported to oppressive regimes, I got no answer and was informed by the Chair that it was not a legitimate line of enquiry. I must ask this: what oversight do we have of our own defence industry in Northern Ireland and how will we comply with an arms trade treaty, should it be agreed in July?

The motion highlights the failure of our current Prime Minister to give his unquestioning support to an arms trade treaty, and I hope that, in advance of the negotiations in July, he will do that and that the UK Government will adopt a strong position in the negotiations.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 9:00 pm, 12th June 2012

I express the support of the Alliance Party for the motion and share the hope that the global conference in New York in July will be a major blow to the unregulated arms trade across the globe.

We know from reports from groups such as Amnesty International and Oxfam that the poorly regulated global trade in arms and ammunition has had a direct impact on increased poverty, human rights abuses and conflict. The treaty must also seek to tackle the horrendous reality of gender-based violence during conflict. There needs to be a focus on prohibiting the trade of arms that could be used to perpetrate acts of sexual and gender-based violence, in line with international legal and moral responsibilities to prevent such atrocities.

The challenge is compounded by the increasing globalisation of the arms trade. Components are sourced from across the world, and production and assembly can occur in different countries that have varying levels of control. This is a global problem that requires an agreed global response, and the opportunity that exists in the July negotiations to achieve that cannot be overstated. It is vital that all involved act to end the lack of regulation in the global arms trade. Unfortunately, we know painfully well in this region how arms can ruin lives and damage communities. We have seen at first hand the cost of a society divided and traumatised by violence. Amnesty recently joined with local victims group WAVE to highlight the impact that illegal arms have had on people in Northern Ireland. I therefore hope that the UK Government will heed the difficult lessons learned from Northern Ireland and take them to the July negotiations.

In our 2010 Westminster election manifesto, we in Alliance stated support for:

“Providing peace and security through a global system that supports democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.

In the same manifesto, we also pledged to support:

“the effective reform of global institutions, to better promote globally agreed objectives” and we recognised:

“the central role of the United Nations in maintaining global peace and security.”

We stated that:

“Alliance looks forward to a world based upon the rule of law. We endorse the work of the UN and NGOs in promoting democracy, pluralism, respect for human rights, and good governance.”

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the NGOs and all campaigners who have worked tirelessly to bring about an agreed arms trade treaty. The commitments outlined in Alliance’s 2010 Westminster manifesto have been put into action by my colleague Naomi Long MP, who recently signed an early day motion noting deep concern for the damage to human rights and development caused by the illegal arms trade and stating that the arms trade treaty:

“should legally bind the regulation of arms exports and imports, provide international oversight and create the necessary enforcement mechanisms” to tackle unregulated arms. I welcome that fact and hope that this House also records its support for such action today. The Control Arms Coalition is inviting Members of Parliaments from around the world, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, to send a message in support of a robust arms trade treaty by signing a parliamentarians’ declaration. I will add my name, and I urge Members to do the same.

The Alliance Party hopes that all member states will agree a robust arms trade treaty. However, it calls on the UK Government in particular to ensure that this agreement is rigorously effective in preventing the transfer of arms that contribute to heinous abuses of international human law across the globe.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

As the honourable Member for South Belfast Mr McDevitt indicated, we had a meeting this afternoon with some of the victims of the illegal arms trade in this part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, we heard testimony, for instance, from some of those who were terribly injured as a result of Semtex imported from Libya and what was then Czechoslovakia by the Provisional IRA to inflict dreadful pain, injury and destruction on our Province. We also had testimony from those who had suffered at the hands of weapons illegally imported from South Africa under the apartheid regime, weapons that were used to indiscriminately attack members of the nationalist community. So, we in the Province are very aware of the damage that can be caused by illegal weapons. There may even be people in the Chamber who have used such illegal weapons. Therefore, it is important that we support the motion and try to drive out this evil trade.

Some of the statistics are quite shocking. Between 1989 and 2010, there were 131 armed conflicts throughout the world, leading directly to the loss — it is an estimate; we cannot be specific — of between 794,000 and 1·1 million lives. That is over 50,000 a year. Even more shockingly, it is reckoned that, each year, 200,000 people lost their life indirectly, as the result of famine and population movements caused by the use of illegal weapons. The countries involved include Burma, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria and Sri Lanka. The list is very sad and very long. Even more shockingly, on top of all that, it is reckoned that, in the same period, 43·3 million people were displaced as a result of those conflicts. So, this trade is causing an abhorrent amount of misery.

We are not here to condemn the arms trade per se. There is a legitimate use of arms. For instance, if the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, which, by the way, is the ninth highest producer of arms in the world — an extraordinary statistic that I did not know until today — wished to supply arms to Sweden, a democratic state where there are basic human rights and a solid democratic structure, that is fine. The problem arises when arms that are supplied legitimately go astray into less reputable states. That is why we support the need for an arms treaty and welcome the fact that our Government of the United Kingdom are playing a leading role. It is also reassuring that the three leaders of the political parties in the UK — Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats — have all come out strongly in support of the campaign. Indeed, the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic were among the 153 countries in the UN that backed the arms trade treaty. There were 19 abstentions and, interestingly, the only country that objected to the treaty was Zimbabwe, which is hardly a shining example of human rights, democracy or the protection of the freedoms of minorities. Therefore, it is clear that the vast majority of civilised democratic nations in the world want to bring this trade under immediate control.

Many of the Members who contributed to the debate referred to the effects of the arms trade in hostilities. However, it must also be remembered that it is estimated that 42% of global homicides are committed by criminal gangs using illegal firearms. That works out at 199,000 homicides a year. One has only to see the devastating effect of the use of illegal weapons in places such as Mexico, where the evil drugs trade is spiralling out of control, and tens of thousands of people are being killed. So it is absolutely imperative that we back the treaty.

The motion poses no threat to the legitimate manufacture and distribution of arms, but, properly implemented, overseen and enforced, it will reduce dramatically the number of weapons getting into the hands of juntas, gangs, dictators and those who cause such dreadful torment in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo as we speak this evening. I support the motion, and I hope that, when the negotiations become extremely serious in July, they will conclude successfully, leading to a treaty that is enforceable throughout the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the strong contribution made by the UK Government as one of the driving forces behind the arms trade treaty; calls on the Prime Minister to publicly affirm his Government’s commitment to the establishment of a robust human rights-compliant arms trade treaty in 2012; and further calls on the UK Government to insist, during the July 2012 formal negotiations, that the sale of arms shall not be authorised where there is a substantial risk that it will lead to serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]