Syria, Northern Ireland and the UN Prep Com on the Arms Trade Treaty

The final United Nations Preparatory Committee on the Arms Trade Treaty gets under way later today in New York. This opinion piece, published in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph, explains why it is important that UK government leadership on this issue does not falter now.

The news from Homs is bad. Hundreds killed in the last few days in that Syrian city alone. Government forces have used heavy weaponry, artillery and tanks to fire indiscriminately at civilian areas. More than 7,000 people are now estimated to have been killed in attempts to put down the uprising which kicked off last March.

The rebellion is part of the Arab Spring which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling autocratic rulers and giving hope that democracy could blossom across the region.

So it is profoundly depressing to learn that Northern Ireland-manufactured and exported military equipment is being used to against those who have risen up against the rule of President Bashir al-Assad.

Syrian Army Shorland Mk 4 in the city of Hama

Shorland armoured cars – sold by Shorts Bros to the Assad regime in the 1980s (the current President’s father ruler for nearly thirty years before Bashir assumed power in 2000) – can be seen patrolling the streets of Homs, bristling with heavy automatic weapons mounted on gunports. Anti-government activists have posted videos and photographs online showing the Northern Ireland exported vehicles being used by both the Syrian army and police force to clear the streets of Homs and other towns across the country.

It’s not just in Syria where State violence – and Western-supplied weaponry – have been used to suppress dissent. Over the last year Amnesty has documented how riot police and internal security forces in Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen used firearms, shotguns, live ammunition, tear gas, water cannons and armoured vehicles to suppress and disperse protesters. And, of course in Libya, al-Gaddafi’s forces launched rockets, mortars, and fired artillery into densely-populated civilian areas. Most of this weaponry was sold and supplied by European countries, Russia and the USA.

Although some states took steps to suspend arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen (and other states in the MENA region), a UN Security Council arms embargo was imposed on Libya and the EU imposed an embargo on Syria, Amnesty believes that many of the arms exports licensed and delivered, should not have been authorised in the first place, as before 2011 there was still plenty of evidence of the risk that those governments would use the arms to commit serious human rights violations.

But how can we balance the obvious benefits to our own economy that this sector can bring with a desire not to see such trade fuel overseas conflicts and human rights violations?

Obviously, nothing can be done about decades-old export deals like the one supplying armoured cars to Syria. But we can do something about future deals to make sure that arms exports aren’t used for the sort of internal repression we are now witnessing in Syria.

One answer, Amnesty feels, is by the international community agreeing to a global Arms Trade Treaty. This would outlaw the sale of arms and other such military equipment to countries where they are likely to be used for abuses and external aggression, rather than for legitimate policing or defence purposes.

In July of this year, world leaders will meet in New York to draw up an historic document: the first ever international Arms Trade Treaty.

The final preparatory meeting before the deciding negotiations takes place next week at the UN. Officials from some influential countries have indicated that they will push strongly to water down the proposals currently tabled.

The UK has championed the arms trade treaty on the world stage for a number of years and, as the formal negotiations come to a head, it is more important than ever that the UK government continue to show leadership.  However, recently it has shown signs of wavering – which could seriously undermine the chances of success at the UN, given its influential position on the Security Council.

Unless we want to see more cities like Homs crushed by brute force, and the defeat of future Arab Springs, then the government must not falter now. More information on the campaign here.