Alan Duncan: No arms trade without an arms trade treaty

Speech by International Development Minister Alan Duncan at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the need for an ethical treaty for the arms industry

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan KCMG

Speech by International Development Minister Alan Duncan at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the need for an ethical treaty for the arms industry.

Every country has the right to defend itself. Indeed, it is the first duty of government to protect its citizens. 

Over the last few decades, global efforts to prevent and reduce violent conflict and civil wars have grown and strengthened. International peace operations - often based on new alliances between the North and the South - have played a vital role in bringing stability to fragile states. But for many countries, conflict and instability remain intractable problems, fuelled by the unregulated and irresponsible trade in arms. 

This year, the world faces a new opportunity to prevent and reduce violent conflict as nations come together in New York in July to try to conclude negotiations on a new arms trade treaty. 

Over the last forty years there have been many negotiations dealing with aspects of arms and defence. There were the series of negotiations aimed at reducing the bloated armouries built up during the cold war. There were then a series of nuclear anti-proliferation discussions. More recently there have been conventions that have addressed specific aspects of the arms trade, such as the Ottawa Convention that bans the sale of landmines, or the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons. The latter has commendable aims and has begun to address the problem of small arms and light weapons but is limited in its focus, is non-binding, and has been hampered by disagreement. 

Through the Arms Trade Treaty we now have the chance to agree a mechanism which comprehensively regulates the trade in all conventional weapons, big and small.

This is a development issue just as much as it is security issue. Without security, children cannot go to school, hospitals cannot function, farming cannot take place and commerce cannot thrive.

In short, violent conflict and insecurity engrain poverty. They threaten our chances of setting this world on a path to peace and prosperity. We have witnessed time and time again conflict and violence being fuelled by the illicit trade in weapons. It is the small arms - the guns and rifles - that have empowered armed groups, and which have escalated armed violence, resulting in millions of deaths.

The illegal trade in arms costs lives and blights futures.

More than 740,000 men, women, and children die each year as a result of armed violence. Two thirds of these deaths occur in countries that are not in conflict. What does this show us? It shows us that easy access to portable weapons is a major factor in causing these deaths.   

This Government is determined to do everything within its power to make sure that the most rigorous international standards are applied to the export of, and trade in, arms. It is the only way to stop weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Britain already operates one of the strongest arms control systems in the world, demanding the highest standards from our defence industry so that we can be sure that we are not fuelling these dreadful trends.

It is encouraging to see that the world community is now planning to come together and agree legally binding, international high standards for the trade and transfer of arms. Internationally, there is now a strong will to make an Arms Trade Treaty a reality.

The UK has been promoting the Arms Trade Treaty from the outset. The UK introduced the initial Resolution in the UN in December 2006 calling for an Arms Trade Treaty. The Resolution was co-authored with six countries: Australia, Argentina Costa Rica, Finland, Kenya and Japan. Negotiations began in 2010 and the final Negotiating Conference will be in July this year.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be leading the negotiations and the Departments for International Development, Defence, and Business Innovation and Skills will be represented on the delegation.

Achieving consensus by the end of the Negotiating Conference on a Treaty text which meets our objectives will be challenging. However, we are very determined and will make every effort to attain this goal. Between now and July, the UK Government will be working to raise the profile of and support for this Treaty. We will be working with our counterparts across the world to bring them on board. We will be demonstrating to our public why we believe this is so important.

I want today to explain just why we feel so strongly about this and why we are pushing for global standards.

First I would like to examine the scale of the problem. Second I want to look at how unregulated arms transfers affect development.  Third I would like to offer some thoughts as to what an arms treaty should look like.

Why do we need a Treaty?

Currently a variable patchwork of regulation exists across the world. Some Governments have very robust arms trade control systems in place, but other Governments are fuelling the illicit and irresponsible trade in arms by not having any control systems at all, or by only having weak systems. Overall, there are no common international standards for the arms trade. This results in gaps and loopholes which can be exploited.

So, first, let’s look in a bit more detail at the impact of unregulated and irresponsible arms sales.

Every year, armed violence kills nearly three quarters of a million  people. To pick a few examples:

  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to 4 million people have died in armed conflict over the last decade.
  • In Nepal, ten years of conflict has left more than 12,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
  • In 2011 an estimated 70,000 people were displaced from eastern Darfur in a wave of ethnically targeted attacks. 

Corrupt or irresponsible dealers are selling and diverting weapons into war zones, fuelling conflict. 

For example, in Uganda armed groups are known to have previously operated surreptitiously to obtain weapons from Sudan - these weapons ultimately led to an enormous cost in human life. The suffering caused by the illicit market in arms was immense. In Uganda, at least 23,000 children and adults were abducted by the Lord Resistance Army, the LRA. Young boys were trained as child soldiers. Young girls were taken to work as slaves, while others were raped and abandoned. Some children have been killed or injured in cross-fire, armed attacks and cattle raids.

In Sudan, a similar picture emerges. Women and children are the most vulnerable in Sudan’s internal conflict. Not only are they caught in the crossfire of conflict, but they are targets of inter-community raids. They are most affected by a lack of access to clean water, food, healthcare and education in areas where conflict persists.

The groups who perpetrated these atrocities would not have been able to operate without access to a constant source of weapons and ammunition. Just because a weapon is small and light does not mean it is not a vicious driver of conflict and suffering.

Easily transported, small arms and light weapons account for an estimated 60 to 90% of conflict deaths as well as tens of thousands of additional deaths outside actual war zones.  It is estimated that more than 95 per cent of small arms in Africa, for example, come from outside the continent.

Another example is Yemen, where 60% of families report ownership of weapons. With approximately 10 million small arms for a population of 23 million people, Yemen is considered among the most heavily armed countries on earth.

The availability of weapons in Yemen is frequently linked to the rapid escalation of armed violence, as witnessed during the instability sparked by the Arab Spring, and to the aggravation of disputes over land and water resources, in which up to 4,000 people are reported to die every year. The end effect is hindrance to the county’s development in both rural and urban areas.

I believe an Arms Trade Treaty can make a major contribution to reducing and preventing this sort of conflict.  It will make it much harder for armed groups and governments that commit human rights abuses to acquire a ready flow of arms.   

As if violent conflict was not bad enough in itself, it also has a significant bearing on a country’s potential for development.

It is clear that armed conflict and armed violence prevent countries from benefitting from the social and economic development they might otherwise enjoy. The internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015. While progress is being made in areas such as the fight against communicable diseases, conflict has now become one of the greatest enemies of development.

About two thirds of the countries least likely to achieve the MDGs are in the midst of - or emerging from - conflict.

Even when conflict is simmering and not quite exploding, how can governments provide universal health care or primary education when their budgets are being diverted to corrupt or irresponsible arms purchases?

There is no way a State can build up a comprehensive health system when there is no stability and security and where they are being forced to address the challenges of bloodshed and injury caused by armed violence ahead of other healthcare demands.

How can a State provide universal primary education when armed violence is preventing or deterring children and teachers from simply getting to school?

Economic growth is the route out of poverty but violence and conflict is a fast route back into it. It is estimated that each year Africa foregoes wealth creation to the sum of 18 billion US dollars, as a result of armed conflict.

Vulnerable hit hardest

Make no mistake, the irresponsible trade in arms hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

Of course, the problems do not stop when the fighting stops. Taking the experience of many countries which have faced conflict, it takes 20 years for an economy to recover after the actual conflict has ended. 

To understand this picture fully we have to ask what is driving this phenomenon.

At one level, the defence business is one of the most technologically pioneering and inventive sectors of industry. But we have to be honest - in addition to the legitimate arms business, the arms trade is subject to some of the most unscrupulous, greedy and immoral practices of any industry. So many times we have heard of arms dealers who are criminals, selling illicitly, and often getting away with it. A recent example is that of the Viktor Bout, convicted on terrorism charges after being accused of planning to smuggle arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It has been reported that over many years Bout supplied arms to some of the most brutal regimes and civil wars of the last two decades. We can’t allow this to continue in an unregulated, tacitly authorised way. 

There are many defence companies and States - those with good controls and good practices - who support an Arms Trade Treaty.  The Treaty will establish a fair and equitable foundation for legitimate arms trading. 

I am today appealing for all countries to push for an Arms Trade Treaty, so we can ensure that no more arms deals take place outside a framework of global standards.

What could the Arms Trade Treaty look like?

So let me now turn to what an Arms Trade Treaty could look like.

An International Arms Trade Treaty will ensure the global trade in arms is subject to high standards. The Treaty will be a legally binding agreement, supported by monitoring and reporting mechanisms, that sets out very clear standards for arms transfers across international boundaries.

Before exporting arms, States will have to assess and consider an important list of criteria. This list must include the risk of the exported arms being used in human rights abuses, or to fuel conflict, the potential impact of the export on sustainable development, and the risk of the trade being subject to diversion or corrupt practices.

To be effective and worthwhile the treaty must be broad in scope, covering all elements from fighter jets to ammunition. Small arms and light weapons must be in the scope of the Treaty; if they are not, the opportunity to regulate a major contributor to conflict and suffering will have been missed. The UK, working hand in hand with most of the world’s developing nations, will push to ensure small arms and light weapons are in the scope of the Treaty. Leaving them out would be an act of negligence.

Under the terms of the Chair’s document and under the terms of the treaty we want, States will need to demonstrate transparency in their arms trade and they will be required to introduce reporting and transparency measures. This should include publishing a National export control list and detailed national reports on arms exports. States will also need to demonstrate their progress on implementing the Treaty requirements by submitting regular progress reports.  Reporting will enable our citizens to hold us to account for the arms transfers we make.

Corruption is a major problem in the arms trade. The unregulated, covert trade in arms, conducted by corrupt individuals or companies, leads to the diversion of weapons into the illicit market or to dangerous end-users. Corruption also undermines the ability of nations to ensure they are paying a fair and uninflated price for the weapons. Corruption allows individuals to profit from a nation’s pain with impunity.

I will push for the Arms Trade Treaty to address the issues of corruption, bribery and the lack of transparency that allow these practices to continue unnoticed. One of the ways I want the Treaty to do this is by including measures to control arms brokering.  This could be achieved by all States having a register of arms brokers. Such measures will close loopholes by ensuring brokers are accountable to the law wherever they are operating.  States will have to prosecute brokers and all other individuals involved in corrupt practices.

I believe the Treaty’s provisions must also recognise the impact of irresponsible and illegal arms transfers on the most vulnerable, including women.  Strong provisions on human rights will assist in this respect. However, considering the disproportionate impact armed violence has on women we also hope to see reference to this included in the Treaty’s preamble. 

This is an ambitious project. Many States do not have export control systems at all and it will be a significant commitment for these States to establish systems which adhere to the strong standards of the Arms Trade Treaty. It will therefore be important that the international community recognises and responds to the need for international cooperation and assistance, including technical and financial assistance to countries which will need help in effectively implementing an Arms Trade Treaty.

The UK believes that this must be a strong, effective Treaty. However, we also realise that compromises will have to be made. Whilst many States are as supportive of a Treaty as we are, there are others who have their reservations. I will be working with international counterparts to try and overcome such doubts.

I am concerned that some do not see the value of having criteria on sustainable development in the Treaty, or they mistakenly interpret this as threatening developing States’ sovereignty, and their right to defend themselves and to spend their budgets as they see fit. 

Others do not want ammunition or small arms and light weapons in the scope of the Treaty. I believe the inclusion of these weapons is critical.  If small arms and light weapons were not included in any agreement, it would dangerously undermine its impact.

In our view a country’s record and approach to human rights should determine whether or not it is a fitting buyer of weapons and we want to see this provision contained in the Treaty. I am concerned that some States are still resisting this inclusion.

Do not misunderstand me. We are encouraged to see the breadth of support that does exist for the Treaty. The EU, sub-Saharan Africa and much of the Caribbean are vocal supporters. The co-authors of the Treaty resolution are continually pushing for the most ambitious scope and provisions.

The P5 [five permanent members of the Security Council] have come a long way and issued a supportive statement last July. The majority of UN Member States want to see criteria regulating the export of arms, they want most conventional weapons in the scope, and they believe that States must retain some record of their arms transfers.

Meanwhile, UK civil society and industry are demonstrating their support, showing the world that all in the UK are united in their support for the Treaty.  

Our opportunity

In July, all the States of the United Nations will meet in New York for four weeks of negotiations. The UK will be at the forefront of these negotiations, working hard to ensure the Conference ends with a robust Arms Trade Treaty which the majority of Nations will sign.

The UK fully believes in the value of such a Treaty and is determined to agree one which will achieve real change. We cannot have a Treaty that does not introduce legally binding regulations, or that does not include those weapons that are causing the most human suffering.

Let me stress, a treaty will not prevent any country from being able to defend itself. Indeed, a state’s security force, when properly trained and resourced, can play a valuable role in ensuring stability and creating a climate in which development can flourish. 

An internationally agreed treaty will, however, close loopholes and gaps in legislation and it will ensure that globally high standards are in place to prevent irresponsible arms transfers taking place. It is long overdue.

Let no one be in any doubt about our determination. I hope that all countries will share our view.

The world will be watching to see who refuses to sign up to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Updates to this page

Published 17 May 2012