‘Arms Easier to Trade than Bananas’


A.D.McKenzie – Inter Press Service-IPS

The lack of international regulation in the trade of conventional arms is a “scandal” that must be brought to an end, said a coalition of non-governmental organisations as they heightened their campaign this week for a comprehensive United Nations treaty.

“There is more control on the selling of bananas than there is on conventional arms,” said Zobel Behalal, peace and conflicts advocacy officer for CCFD-Terre Solidare, a French-based Catholic NGO.

“For us, this is a true scandal because states can do what they want without taking into account the impact on civilian populations,” he told IPS.

The CCFD has joined forces with Amnesty International, Oxfam France and other groups to urge that there be no “watering down” of the proposed Arms Trade Treaty when government representatives meet in New York next week to discuss various elements.

Conventional arms (excluding nuclear, chemical and biological weapons) comprise the majority of arms in circulation, and the growing global trade exacerbates their proliferation and the risks to civilian populations, the groups said Thursday at a media briefing.

NGOs have been campaigning since 2003 for international controls, and a U.N. conference on the treaty will be held in July of this year. This follows the adoption of a resolution in December 2006 by the U.N. General Assembly.

That resolution was in favour of a “comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms (TCA).”

France, the fourth-largest global seller of arms, says that it jointly sponsored and promoted the resolution and since then has “resolutely strived to support this draft treaty.”

But Oxfam stresses that such support cannot be taken for granted, especially as the country is holding presidential elections in April and May, and the candidates have not expressly declared their position on the issue.

“France should work for the adoption of the strongest and most ambitious treaty possible,” Nicolas Vercken, Oxfam’s policy and advocacy officer, told IPS. “It should conform to the most exacting standards.”

Oxfam says that the agreement should go beyond the “mere commercial interests of states and must effectively permit the saving of lives.”

According to figures from human rights group Amnesty International, more than 1,500 people die each day from violence involving arms, and some 300,000 are victims each year of conventional firearms, outside of armed conflicts.

In war zones, meanwhile, 80 percent of the victims are civilians, and armed clashes cause the displacement of about 26 million people.

Campaigners stress that armed conflict is one of the main causes of under-development in many parts of the world, and they say that the absence of international controls helps to fuel such conflicts and also abets the perpetration of war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

Amnesty International points to the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Sudan as examples where the unregulated trade in arms has led to abuses. The group says that despite a U.N. arms embargo on the war-torn region of Darfur since 2004, Sudan has bought arms from various countries that knew the weapons would be used in Darfur.

“Countries such as Belarus, China and Russia that sold these arms to Sudan must have been aware that they were going to be used in Darfur to massacre the civilian population and they still sold them,” Aymeric Elluin, Amnesty International France’s arms campaigner told IPS. “We’ve been denouncing this for years now.”

The organisation says that in the last 12 months, the region has seen a new wave of fighting, including “targeted and ethnically motivated attacks on civilian settlements, and indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombings.”

The fighting has contributed to the displacement of an estimated 70,000 people from their homes and villages, Amnesty International says.

Regarding the Arab Spring, Elluin said that many countries bore a responsibility for having sold arms to dictatorial regimes. France, for instance, sold arms to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and later also armed the Libyan rebels. Some 20 states had sold weapons to Syria before the current uprising.

“Everyone is guilty,” Elluin said.

As part of the groups’ campaign, a Syrian refugee and former maths teacher Auman al-Aswad spoke of the human rights abuses in his country, saying he supported a general embargo on arms sales to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Between 2005 and 2009, France sold munitions to Syria worth 1.2 million euros, campaigners say.

Al-Aswad, who fled to France last December, said he had been targeted by the regime because he transmitted information abroad about official crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations.

On Thursday, meanwhile, more than 100 people were reported to have been killed by Syrian government forces, as attacks continued after the failure last weekend by the U.N. Security Council to agree on a resolution condemning the violence in the country.

The five permanent members of the Security Council – China, the United States, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – account for 88 percent of the global trade in arms, with the United States being the biggest exporter, campaigners say.

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