The UN Arms Trade Treaty is not perfect

By Jonathan Power

US presidential candidate Jimmy Carter described arms sales as a “cancer”. But once in office Carter achieved little in controlling them.

In President Bill Clinton’s first term Amnesty International questioned the US government about the use of American military helicopters and armoured vehicles involved in human rights abuses in Turkey. Under pressure from Congress the State Department compiled a report on human rights violations by the Turkish armed forces. It concluded there was “highly credible” evidence that US-supplied arms and jet fighters had been used to subdue Kurdish villages.

Later, in 1996, the US temporarily suspended the sale of advanced attack helicopters. But two years later there were fresh reports that hundreds more armoured vehicles had been sold. The US Defence Secretary visited Turkey and reportedly lobbied on behalf of American companies wishing to co-produce advanced helicopters there. In that same year an American company sold 10,000 electric shock weapons to the Turkish police.

In Angola the US supplied arms for many years to UNITA, the guerrilla movement hostile to the pro-Soviet central government, that helped stoke a war that became so out of control that the country was without any central services to speak of and became the country in Africa, despite its incredible mineral wealth, that was the most ill-fed and disease prone of all. In Nicaragua arms supplied by the Administration of Ronald Reagan in secret defiance of Congressional writ kept alive a civil war that could have been ended much earlier than it eventually was, by compromise and elections.

After the great Indonesian army massacre in East Timor in 1991, the US formally cut its so-called International Military and Education Training Programme for the Indonesian army. But in March 1998 leaked documents revealed that the US government had secretly used another little known aid effort- the Joint Combined Exchange and Training Programme – to train the Indonesian army, including its notorious special forces command, in close quarters’ combat, sniper techniques and psychological operations.

Under Section 502 B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1976 the US is required to cut off all security assistance to any government which “engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”. In practice Section 502 B has never been used. (Read on Google the official State Department brief on this detailed and comprehensive section of the act.)

Last week an overwhelming majority of the world including the US and its Western allies (Russia and China did not) signed an historic treaty to control the trade in conventional arms. The Republican-controlled Senate where the treaty has to be ratified has said the treaty will be dead on arrival. (The pro-gun National Rifle Association has vowed to fight against ratification even though until now it has confined itself to domestic legislation, thwarting the banning of military-type weapons and even background checks on would-be gun owners.) But on this issue Obama has an ace up his sleeve. He can implement 502B.

The new treaty prohibits states from exporting conventional weapons in violation of arms embargoes (e.g. to Syria and North Korea) or weapons that could be used for acts of genocide (none at the moment), crimes against humanity and war crimes (e.g. the Congo, Myanmar, Israel and Somalia) and terrorism (e.g. Iran and Pakistan). “We did it! The world has been waiting a long time for this historic arms treaty …and now we have it.”, said the British foreign secretary, William Hague, representing a country that has had a bad record in controlling nationals who participate in selling under-the-table arms and a terrible record on arms sales corruption.

Russia made a good point at the negotiations, but one mostly ignored by the media. The treaty has a major loophole, it argued. It doesn’t outlaw rebels being supplied with arms. Countries as diverse as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UK and France are supplying or want to supply Syrian opposition groups. Their argument is that a level playing field is necessary if the rebels are to overthrow the Assad regime.

But is this not creating a level killing field? The dangers of this can be seen in Libya where the rebel militias, long after the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, control important parts of the country and make it difficult for the government to create its own standing army. Neither in Libya nor Syria did the outside world give much support to the early non-violent protesters who might have built up a greater head of steam if they had had outside help and had the world media not given much more prominence to armed militias than to non-violent protesters. (Is it forgotten that the Syrian rebellion was triggered by a protest mounted by children?)

Undoubtedly the new treaty is a big achievement but more clear thinking leading to more steps forward is an imperative.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

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