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Arms Trade: Global Treaty

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to further negotiations for a global arms trade treaty.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a trustee of Saferworld, a charitable organisation that works on arms control and security sector reform.

In a volatile world, the Government are to be congratulated on their lead role in working towards—

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Question. He is more of an old hand than I am at all this.

Negotiations on the arms trade treaty will begin at preparatory committee meetings in 2010 and 2011, ahead of a UN conference on the ATT in 2012. We want an ATT to be legally binding and to set standards for the arms trade, ensuring respect for human rights, international humanitarian law and sustainable development. We have intensified engagement with the European Union and key bilateral partners to ensure that maximum progress is made before the first UN meeting in July.

My Lords, I am so confident of my noble friend that I was expecting that positive Answer, and I thank her very warmly for it.

Does my noble friend agree that because of the importance of the issue, a weak treaty would be worse than no treaty and that the treaty must be strong? Is there a danger that by working with the very sensible consensus approach, we might legitimise the lowest common denominator? Does she also agree that it is essential to ensure that our American friends are with us on the importance both of human rights and of including ammunition? Are eight weeks in the next three years sufficient time for all this?

Securing a consensus treaty does not mean that it will necessarily be a weak treaty. We will need to work hard to ensure that we have a strong treaty that is robust and that takes full measure of the need to deal with irresponsible and unregulated arms dealing. That has to be the central objective of those who are negotiating it.

We have very clear United States support. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed US support of the ATT in a statement that she made in October, and we will continue to work with the United States through the UN process to secure a treaty that will raise the global standard on arms control.

Will the Minister accept that while a global arms trade treaty is certainly a very worthy goal towards which one must work, merely signing a treaty, rather like merely passing a law, does not mean that wishing makes it so? We must realise that there is an enormous amount of work to be done even after a treaty is signed. Does she agree particularly that civil society must play a major part at all levels in ensuring that the arms trade treaty really works, and that no great progress will be made until countries such as Russia, Ukraine and many other arms manufacturing and trading countries are on side as well?

I thank the noble Lord. We are fully aware that countries such as China, Russia and, indeed, Ukraine have been co-operative on this issue. However, sceptical countries are involved with which we need to work, attempt to address their concerns and see whether we can move matters forward so that we have a truly international agreement. We engage firmly and strongly with NGOs and civil society and today officials from the FCO are meeting with NGOs to discuss further progress and measures that we need to collaborate and work together on. Their views are fully taken into account at all times.

Will Her Majesty’s Government press for the treaty to include the trade in second-hand arms, which is one of the curses of the modern world?

I can assure the noble Lord that all arms trading, of whatever kind of weapons, is an important aspect of the treaty, which is about a global agreement to deal with the irresponsible, unregulated system that currently exists. We already have in the UK and across the European Union a code of conduct on arms dealing which covers the measures suggested by the noble Lord.

Are there enforcement measures in this area? We know that much of the informal dimension of arms smuggling—as in the current case in Bangkok, where a Georgian-registered aircraft has been blocked—is paid for through all kinds of offshore centres. Are we going to follow the money in checking what is going on?

I thank the noble Lord for raising an important issue. We are well aware of enforcement in the context of the UK and European Union code of conduct, to which we have agreed, and it will need to be a matter of negotiation during the process taking place at the United Nations. We believe that it should place a legal obligation on each individual country to establish national export control systems which could be enforced and followed rigorously by the United Nations and others following the process.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that control of the arms trade is both a priority and central to the defence policy of our country?

I agree that it is an extremely important aspect of all of our policies, including defence and others that I know the right reverend Prelate would support. We support the need for strict and comprehensive controls. We need to be steadfast about the inclusion of issues such as weapons, a commitment to human rights, international humanitarian law and sustainable development as central elements in the treaty. Efforts that we are making to meet the millennium development goals are being severely damaged by conflicts in and the transfer of arms to countries—particularly in Africa, where many post-conflict countries are still awash with arms.

My Lords, is it intended to refine and improve the existing EU code, and what is the timetable for that? Will the EU use its levers—for example, the Eastern Partnership—to bring in Ukraine and other similar countries?

The European Union is, of course, a strong ally of the efforts being made in the United Nations to get these stringent controls in place. If what occurs in the UN is stronger than the EU code of conduct, the UN applications would need to apply across the European Union. We would then be part of a global treaty—that is the difference—and, in many ways, the EU code of conduct would be replaced by a global, international code and a set of regulations which are likely to be far more effective. On our work with the Eastern Partnership and with countries which have large amounts of armaments and where exports of armaments to vulnerable countries are still taking place, we need to draw in their support for this global treaty. This will make it easier for us to follow exactly what their arms dealers might be doing to contravene the new international treaty.