Every minute of every day, one person dies as a result of armed violence and it is shambolic that there are tighter global regulations on the trade of bananas than there are on AK-47s - says Amnesty International director
Recent reports that the Syrian government is set to take delivery of Russian surface to air missile systems, armoured rocket complexes and possibly Mig-29 fighter jets have sparked censure from many quarters around the world, particularly from the United States. The contract had apparently been agreed between Syria and Russia before the escalation of fighting, but not withdrawn since. Despite persistent international reproach for such deals, Russia's defence is often to cast aspersions on its critics by pointing to American arms sales to Bahrain, in spite of egregious acts of human rights violations being committed by the Bahraini authorities. The recent wounding of prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja by Bahraini police with a tear gas canister is indicative of that.
It is, indeed, difficult to reprimand a government for dubious arms deals if the censuring state has a record of offence on the same situation. Yet, without strict legally-binding regulations upon the international arms trade, it is hard for states to hold each other to account on the rules pertaining to the trade, transfer and supply of weapons. Russia and the US are not the only perpetrators of questionable arms transfers. Amnesty International has highlighted how the world's 'big six' arms suppliers - China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US - supply large quantities of weapons to repressive governments across the world, despite the substantial risk the arms would be used to commit serious human rights violations.
Just last week, we published a report highlighting how a flow of military weapons from China, Sudan and Ukraine has triggered indiscriminate attacks by both the South Sudanese Armed Forces and armed opposition forces in South Sudan. The report Overshadowed conflict, arms supplies fuel violations in Mayom County, Unity State
highlights how clandestine delivery of battle tanks supplied from Ukraine to South Sudan involved transfers via Kenya and Uganda and included shipping companies from Germany, Ukraine, the UK and Isle of Man-registered shell companies.
The arms trade is out of control. Every day, every minute one person dies as a result of armed violence. And it is shambolic that there are tighter global regulations on the trade of bananas than there are on AK-47s. This is why talks for an international Arms Trade Treaty, which start this week at the United Nations in New York, are so vitally important. As world leaders meet today, Amnesty International joins its control arms coalition partners in calling for governments to agree a treaty, which will prevent such needless killings. In particular, we are calling for governments to ensure that the treaty will prevent arms transfers that fuel human rights abuses, poverty and conflict.
This can only become a reality if governments strictly regulate the sale and transfer of all weapons, arms, munitions and related equipment used in military and internal security operations - from armoured vehicles, missiles and aircraft, through to small arms, grenades and ammunition. The treaty should also include the principle that governments must be required to undertake rigorous risk assessments prior to any authorisation of an international arms transfer or transaction, and publicly report on all authorisations and deliveries.
There is a real risk that some governments may seek to weaken the rules of the treaty and its definitions. The US, China, Syria and Egypt have recently voiced their opposition to including ammunition in the pact. China also wants to exclude small arms and 'gifts', while several Middle East governments oppose human rights criteria being included in the treaty. The British government meanwhile - one of the original champions of the treaty - has regularly called for an effective deal; one which would include small arms, light weapons and ammunition.
Writing to Amnesty International and Oxfam recently, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron also highlighted the fact that his government wants "to see a treaty that contains strong provisions on human rights, international humanitarian law and sustainable development, and covers activities like brokering. It is important that the ATT contains reporting and transparency measures." And last month, the Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt - who will be leading the UK delegation at the Arms Trade Treaty talks in New York - said: "The unregulated trade in conventional arms feeds conflict and undermines peace and security. Since 2006, the UK has been at the front of a global effort to introduce more effective and coherent international regulation of that trade. With less than two weeks to the start of negotiations in New York, the government remains committed to securing a robust, effective and legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty."
While we certainly welcome the British government's strong signs of commitment for a robust treaty, it is clear that judging by the mood of some other governments that they will have their work cut out for them to deliver the kind of deal they want to see. This month, no doubt we shall have heated debate and strong opinions expressed at the UN in New York as governments thrash out this historic agreement. But, if delivered effectively, this treaty could lead to not just the 'pause' button being pressed on serious human rights violations being committed - as a result of inappropriate arms transfers - it could actually prevent some of the worst human rights violations being committed, once and for all. Kate Allen is the UK director of Amnesty International, in the United Kingdom