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Arms Trade Treaty

Volume 548: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

The final negotiations that can create a robust and effective conventional weapons arms trade treaty, built on humanitarian and human rights principles, are happening in New York most of this month, and they are potentially a major step forward in the protection of human life across our planet. The world must grasp this opportunity, because it is far from certain that another one will come along again in the foreseeable future.

In one sense, it is astonishing that we have reached this year and not adopted a worldwide agreement to regulate the global arms trade before. We have treaties that control trade in a whole variety of goods, such as in endangered species, ivory and rhino horn, dinosaur bones and bananas, but not in the global arms trade, and the absence of such a treaty has undoubtedly meant death and injury, often to some of the most vulnerable people throughout the world, on a truly alarming scale.

As the Control Arms Coalition points out in its briefing to parliamentarians on the treaty, every minute at least one person dies from armed violence; 85% of all killings documented by Amnesty involve guns; and two bullets are produced each year for every person on the planet.

The arms trade is global, so controlling it must take place on a worldwide basis. Many individual states have laws regulating the international transfer of arms, and some regions have agreements in place to do the same, but too often they are not legally binding, not properly enforced and not based on adequate criteria.

Of course, a considerable number of countries are not signed up to any sort of multilateral agreement and do not have well developed national laws in this area, so what regulation we do have, in the absence of an arms trade treaty, is patchy and inconsistent, so creating an environment that is all too easily exploited by unscrupulous arms traders. Consequently, weapons get into the wrong hands, where they are used mercilessly to facilitate serious human rights abuses, armed violence and conflict, destabilising regions and further impoverishing people and communities in the process.

It is estimated that armed violence costs Africa $19 billion every year—coincidentally and ironically, roughly the same amount that the continent receives in development aid. The dangers and the damage of an absence of adequate regulation on the international transfer of conventional weapons have been recognised for a long time, going back to 1995 when a group of Nobel peace prize laureates proposed globally binding rules on arms control.

The main message that I want to put over this evening is that, yes, we need an arms trade treaty and we need it now, but not just any agreement that bears the title will do. It must be something that will make a real, practical difference—a treaty that will save lives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that, although an arms trade treaty needs widespread support to be effective, given that 150 of the UN’s 193 member states support a comprehensive and robust treaty, a strong treaty with a large number of signatories and the potential for more is better than a weak treaty with a few more signatories?

I completely agree; my hon. Friend has made it unnecessary for me to give part of my speech, but I will mention an alternative option, if the worst comes to the worst, for trying to get something really valuable.

I am chair of the newly formed all-party group on weapons and protection of civilians. We have made it our first priority to work for an arms trade treaty that is robust and workable. We were persuaded to do so by the group of non-governmental organisations that make up the Control Arms Coalition—organisations that have been working for many years to try to achieve the objective of such a treaty.

What do we mean when we call for a robust and workable arms trade treaty? We can achieve it by bringing together countries’ existing obligations and commitments, and other widely accepted norms of state behaviour, under international law and applying them to the trade in conventional weapons.

In practice, that means establishing in international law a binding obligation to prevent transfers of weapons if the arms would pose a substantial risk of being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or to undermine socio-economic development and poverty reduction goals. States should be required to conduct rigorous case-by-case assessments of all proposed imports, exports and international transfers of conventional arms to enable them to prevent those that breach the criteria of the treaty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I know that he recognises the excellent work done by NGOs on this issue. Does he agree that any treaty needs to address the whole issue of resale? An awful lot of arms get transferred to countries that use them inappropriately.

That is absolutely right. As I am sure that the Minister will report, there is a real danger in negotiations at present; some states are trying to reduce various things that should be covered. We want a comprehensive treaty.

The treaty needs to cover all types of conventional weaponry, munitions, armaments and related articles used for potential lethal force in military and law enforcement operations, as well as their parts and accessories, machines and the technologies and expertise for making, developing and maintaining them. It must have strong and effective implementation systems, including a public and transparent reporting mechanism, good monitoring, reporting and verification procedures, and provisions for settling disputes over suspected violations of the treaty. To achieve that, the treaty must also provide institutional support and periodic review for those states that do not have experience of enforcing a high standard of arms transfer control. That will require both resources and technical assistance.

The treaty must create an international framework of legal obligation, but it must be implemented nationally. Arms transfer decisions will still have to be decided by national Governments, but under the treaty they will be obliged to deny any transfer that breaches the arms trade treaty criteria.

When the all-party group decided to prioritise securing the treaty, we set ourselves the task of convincing the UK Government to fight for the sort of robust agreement at the UN that I have just described. We secured a meeting with the Minister, who is leading on the issue, and his diplomatic team, along with the NGOs that I have mentioned. We were very pleased to learn at that meeting that we did not have to convince the Minister or his team; it became apparent that their objectives for a strong, effective treaty mirrored ours pretty well. That has been further confirmed at a joint public meeting in Westminster, at which the Minister spoke, organised by our all-party group and the all-party United Nations group, chaired by Lord Hannay of Chiswick.

The Governments of some other nation states are, however, either opposed to such a comprehensive treaty or, at best, sceptical about it. The objections and reservations vary from state to state, so there is a real and challenging job to be done at the UN in the next couple of weeks if we are to secure our shared, progressive objectives. Given the nature and structure of treaty conferences, it is difficult during the process to get an accurate overview to help to assess the prospect of a successful outcome, but from the reports that I have received, the signs appear to have been positive and less positive so far.

The Control Arms NGOs are pressing for what they describe as a bullet-proof treaty, and they have presented a 600,000-signature petition to Ban Ki-moon. Parliamentarians for Global Action has delivered a petition signed by 2,053 Members of Parliament from 96 countries, including, of course, from this Parliament. However, a small minority of sceptical states have managed to get the NGOs excluded from a substantial part of the conference.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, showed appropriate leadership in his opening statement to delegates when he said:

“You will need to agree on robust criteria that would help lessen the risk that transferred weapons are used to commit violations of international humanitarian law or human rights. You will also need to define the scope of the treaty to cover an extensive array of weapons and activities and that leaves no room for loopholes. Our common goal is clear: a robust and legally binding ATT that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence.”

I compliment my hon. Friend on his speech. I share his disappointment that the NGOs were removed from the discussions in New York, because that is completely contrary to the spirit of the UN. Does he agree that they will be needed in the monitoring of the treaty should it finally be achieved, as that is the only way in which we will ensure its success?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The experience from recent treaties, some of them outwith the UN—for example, on landmines and cluster munitions—is not only that we have needed those in civil society to bring them about, but that we need them to watch what is going on afterwards.

Worryingly, the statement by Ban Ki-moon was followed by a discussion paper from the new chair of the conference that fell way short of what he had described. Its stated goals and objectives for the treaty fail to require respect for international human rights law or humanitarian law. Its proposed criteria for identifying circumstances in which a transfer of arms should be denied are over-complex, inconsistent and unworkable. It uses language that has no foundation in international law and would allow weapons transfers with a significant risk that the arms would be used to violate human rights or humanitarian law or to undermine sustainable development. Its scope is far too narrow and unclear, leaving out a range of lethal munitions, technologies and activities.

It appears that the negotiations have started very slowly, with some nations clearly attempting to block progress. In contrast, there have been strong calls for a robust treaty from a number of states, including Norway, Australia and the Caribbean community countries. The UK delegation has similarly called for

“a robust, effective and legally binding”

ATT. Every delegation in such negotiations will have its own red lines beyond which there can be no compromise because fundamental principles would be lost—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I will not ask the Minister to describe, in the middle of negotiations, what his red lines are, but I urge him and his delegation to redouble their efforts to secure the ATT that we in this House all want.

In particular, we need to make it clear that the treaty must require states to refuse transfers with a substantial risk that they will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law, and there should be no agreement to so-called mitigation measures that would allow transfers even where those risks applied. Similarly, development must be a clear criterion against which to assess transfers.

I should like to ask the Minister some specific questions that I hope he will be able to answer. So far, the process seems to have been dominated by a small minority of countries intent on disrupting and delaying the negotiations. Have he and his team been able to make bilateral contacts to help to speed up progress, and if so, who has the UK identified to work with or influence? On criteria, the new chair’s paper seems to be heavily influenced by the US, with much weaker proposals than those in the previous chair’s draft treaty. How is the UK team going to secure the oft-repeated aim for robust criteria based on international human rights law and humanitarian law?

I congratulate the Minister on the UK’s intervention at the conference that referred to the positive role that the ATT can have in reducing armed violence and gender-based violence. That needs to be addressed in the criteria section. Is that one of the UK’s priorities in the negotiations? If so, what are he and his team doing to encourage other states to support its inclusion in the treaty?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), I appeal to the Minister not to settle for a weak treaty. It would be better to have a smaller number of signatories and a strong treaty. I am not suggesting that the Minister should be thinking about failure at this time. However, if the only treaty that we can get is a very weak one, we should not sign up to it, but should join with the progressive countries and get agreement at the General Assembly to a strong treaty. I hope that it does not come to that. I wish the Minister and his delegation every success in securing the robust and effective treaty that he wants and that this Parliament supports.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) on securing this debate on the arms trade treaty. I thank him for his courtesy in letting me and my officials have a copy of his remarks, which will make it easier to respond directly to his questions.

As we can tell from this debate and as I know from my correspondence, this issue commands a great deal of cross-party interest and support. The hon. Gentleman, the other Members who are present and many others feel passionately about this issue and follow it closely. I returned recently from the treaty negotiations in New York, where I had the good fortune to meet the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who is in her place tonight, and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). That emphasises the interest that colleagues have in seeing as much of the process as possible after waiting for so long.

The timing of this debate is opportune, coming as it does at the mid-point of the highly significant negotiations that began in New York last week. It offers an opportunity to take stock of the negotiations and to set out the Government’s priorities for and commitment to a robust and legally binding treaty. I briefed the all-party parliamentary groups on the United Nations, on landmines and unexploded weapons of conflict, and on weapons and protection of civilians at the end of April. I stressed that securing a positive outcome in July would not be easy, but that we would do everything within our power to secure a good result.

Nothing that has happened since I attended the opening day of the conference has led me to change my view. This remains an incredibly complex negotiation, made more difficult by a hard core of countries that would like to derail the negotiations, as the hon. Member for Gower said. I assure the House that the UK’s teams in London and New York—and our embassies and high commissions across the world, because sometimes the decision makers are not in New York, but in their home capitals—are working long and hard to ensure a successful result.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) on securing this debate. Has the Minister spoken with his colleagues at the Department for International Development about how this trade affects the impact of UK development money, given the considerable amount of money that the UK taxpayer is spending in some of the worst affected regions of the world?

I assure my hon. Friend that I have spoken long and frequently with my colleagues at the Department for International Development, and in particular with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who will be going to the negotiations next week. It is clear that in a number of the countries that are most affected by the misery of an unregulated arms trade, we have deep concerns about all sorts of other issues. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of that element of the negotiations and to the need for joint working. He and the House can be assured that there is exceptional joint working across the Government on this issue.

It is important that we keep in mind why we are having these negotiations and why the UK has led international efforts towards an arms trade treaty for so long. Those efforts started under the last Government, for which we give them great credit, and have continued under the coalition. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions on 27 June that

“we back the arms trade treaty, as we have done for a considerable amount of time, and lobby very vigorously on that issue.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 302.]

The House is genuinely working together on this, recognising the problems that need to be faced.

The problems caused by the unregulated trade in conventional arms need to be addressed. The lack of effective and coherent global regulation fuels conflict, destabilises regions and hampers effective social and economic development. It can also have devastating effects on communities and individuals, with armed violence destroying lives and livelihoods and displacing communities. A lack of regulation means that arms can slip into the hands of those who would use them against our own troops and civilians. That situation has gone on too long, and we need to stop it now.

Those are the reasons why we have placed such a high priority on securing a treaty described as comprehensive, robust and effective. Ministers and senior officials regularly raise the arms trade treaty in our bilateral and multilateral meetings around the world, so that we can both work through particular issues that states may have and encourage positive and constructive engagement in the diplomatic conference in New York. We have used our international networks of posts to lobby in support of an arms trade treaty, and we have provided funding for non-governmental organisations from developing states to attend the conference.

No matter how committed we are to securing an arms trade treaty—I do not think anyone is in any doubt about that commitment—we cannot deliver it on our own. That is why we have put so much emphasis on working with our international partners, NGOs and representatives of the UK defence industry in the run-up to the conference. We have collaborated closely with the treaty’s co-authors, the EU and the P5, and will continue to do so as the negotiations progress, to seek to achieve a successful conclusion.

To get a truly effective treaty, we need standards not only high enough to meet our aims but with the global reach provided by the broadest participation of states, including the major arms exporters. It was always my intention to travel to New York for the start of the diplomatic conference, to signal the UK’s continuing commitment to securing an arms trade treaty. I arrived at the beginning of the first week and saw at first hand the real challenges that our delegation and other treaty supporters will need to overcome to ensure a successful outcome by the end of the month. In fact, the start of the conference was delayed for a couple of days by one such challenge, which threatened the start of the negotiations. The question of Palestine’s status in the United Nations is important, and there are plenty of colleagues in the Chamber tonight who understand that very well, but it cannot and should not be decided by the UN process on the arms trade treaty.

Despite the distraction and the loss of a couple of days, negotiations are now firmly under way, but challenges remain. To answer the first question that the hon. Member for Gower asked me, a particular problem that has dogged the first two weeks has come from a small group of states that continue to try to thwart the will of the vast majority of the international community, using a smokescreen of procedural points to stop substantive engagement on the issues that really matter. Of course, when a country has a real concern about what an arms trade treaty might contain or how it might operate, we will listen to it and work through its concerns, as is only right. However, we will not allow the conference to be railroaded by states that want only to prevent eventual agreement. We have already lost two days to procedural wrangling, and we cannot afford to lose further time.

Despite all that, the process is well under way. Ambassador Moritan continues to steer us towards our eventual goal, despite the choppy waters. Following my visit last week, I spoke to the ambassador on the telephone on Tuesday and offered him the UK’s full support. As I mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for International Development will be in New York next week, helping to sustain the momentum of the process and maintain our leading role at this critical time.

I have seen the engagement of our delegation in negotiations, and I do not think the House can overestimate how effective and useful its members have been, how much they know and how engaged they have been in the process in the many years since it started. A Minister’s presence can add a bit of weight. Whether that comes through my right hon. Friend’s physical presence or through me making the telephone calls that are needed to certain capitals, the House can be assured that our comprehensive effort will continue across Government right until the very end.

A programme of work for the conference has been agreed, and two main committees have been formed to look at different aspects of the treaty. They are being ably chaired by the Netherlands and Morocco and are gathering the views of UN member states quickly and effectively, trying to make up for the time that has been lost.

I regret that agreement on a programme of work has meant that some meetings are closed to the public. Despite that, we still recognise the important part civil society has to play in the ATT negotiations. The UK delegation is in constant touch with non-governmental organisations in New York and meets with them regularly to ensure their views are heard. It is important that we continue to work closely with them at this crucial point. They have been instrumental in the progress we have made on the ATT and we still very much need their help and expertise if we are to be successful.

I tried to remain close to NGOs in the run-up to the negotiations and considered whether they would formally join the delegation. For perfectly understandable reasons— namely, for their independence—they felt that that was not the right thing to do, but we continue to stay close. At the end of this weekend, I intend to speak on the telephone to our ambassador in New York who is dealing with the negotiations. I will probably also call the representatives of Amnesty International and Oxfam on behalf of others to see how they are with the process and to maintain my contact with them. That emphasises how much the Government are trying to keep engaged with NGOs.

Can the Minister give us some good news about the involvement of NGOs in the monitoring process when the protocol is finally agreed, which will hopefully be soon?

The role of NGOs in monitoring and in the transparency efforts that we are trying to make in the treaty will be vital. They can see an important role for themselves and we will certainly encourage that. I am very keen to keep them involved but practically, not everybody can go to the same meetings. The chair has taken the view that to get things done now—we have lost a bit of time—he has had to produce this programme. Everybody over there understands that, but we will do our best to keep everyone in touch.

It is too early to say how the negotiations will conclude. A lot can change in two weeks in a multilateral negotiation of this sort—I am sure colleagues appreciate that momentum builds either towards success or something different. It is already clear that contentious issues remain, particularly around the treaty’s scope and criteria. As the hon. Member for Gower has noted, and as he said in his second question, a new chair’s paper has issued. The text is a discussion paper based on his consultations with all UN member states. Although the Government believe the paper is a good basis for discussions—we welcome large parts of the document, including, for example, the retention of ammunition in the scope—there are undoubtedly aspects that we believe need further work and strengthening.

One such aspect is the section on criteria. The UK delegation has made it clear in its interventions in New York and its bilateral consultations that the UK would like the language on criteria to be strengthened. The UK supports an ATT containing a mandatory refusal if there is substantial risk that the export would be used to commit a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law. Ministers and senior officials are echoing those sentiments in their bilateral and multilateral meetings on the treaty.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly raised in his third question the positive role the ATT could have in reducing armed violence and gender-based violence. Let me assure him and the House that gender-based violence is an important issue for many states, not least the UK. We want it included in the treaty. All groups, whether characterised by age, gender, ethnicity, religion or other, should be afforded protection by an ATT. We will continue to work with like-minded states to ensure we secure the strongest possible ATT.

May I reiterate on behalf of the House the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton)? We need firmer measures. If that means fewer measures, so be it. We then take the battle into the Assembly itself.

As the hon. Member for Gower suggested, I do not want to indicate at this stage what the likely outcome will be, but I am on record as saying at one or two meetings that we will not sign an agreement that makes things weaker. There is no point in that, and there has to be a moment when we walk away, but I will not hide it from colleagues that the choice might end up being very difficult. We want to get enough in to make it worth while and we want enough people to sign to make it effective, but there will be some tough choices to make at the end. All I can say is that we will do our best to be as inclusive as possible when we get there. Then we will see. There will always be a tomorrow. That is important. Whether or not this is as successful as we want—it is highly unlikely to be written as we would want it—there will always be the opportunity of a further process.

The commitment of the Government, the UK delegation, the wider team in London and our network of posts around the world remains clear, and reflects the view of the House. We will work tirelessly, co-ordinating closely with civil society and the UK defence industry in support of our common goal. This is an historic opportunity to make the world a safer place. The international community owes it to the people whose lives have been blighted by conflict and armed violence associated with the unregulated trade in arms to use the remaining two weeks to maximum effect. The UK will be working tirelessly to this end. One of the purposes for which the UN was founded was to achieve co-operation in solving problems of a humanitarian character and to encourage respect for human rights. An effective, legally binding ATT will help to do that and more, and we are sparing no effort in our pursuit of that aim.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.