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Arms Trade Treaty

Volume 737: debated on Monday 21 May 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what their principal objectives will be in the negotiations for an arms trade treaty at the United Nations in July.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is firmly committed to securing a robust and legally binding arms trade treaty to regulate effectively the international trade in conventional arms. The final treaty should have a demonstrable humanitarian, security and development impact, and be capable of implementation in practice to ensure the broadest participation of states, including major arms exporters. This should be achieved without creating an undue additional burden for the legitimate defence industry.

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. I am sure he agrees with his right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development, who, when speaking to the International Institute for Strategic Studies last week, said that the Government’s principal objective between now and the negotiations in July is to “raise the profile” of the arms trade treaty. Does the Minister not agree that the two steps that the Government could best take to do that would be, first, to announce immediately that the Foreign Secretary will attend the opening of negotiations at the UN in July; and, secondly, for the Prime Minister to give his full support in a speech between now and the opening of the conference? Will the Minister lend his support to those two measures?

To be fair, I say to the noble Lord, who obviously has been very much at the centre of these things, that the full support is most certainly there. All along, from the time that this initiative began in 2008, the British Government, under the previous Labour Administration and under this Administration, have given very full support to this and we want it brought to the point where we can get a draft treaty. However, as he knows, it is no use being too starry-eyed about overcoming all the difficulties. As to ministerial attendance or ministerial speeches, we will have to look at that. I know that this is a high priority. Of course, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has many high priorities and this most certainly is one of them, so we will have to take a decision on attendance in due course.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government and civil servants should be warmly congratulated on their hard work and consistent commitment to achieving this treaty? Does he agree that it would be better to have no treaty than an inadequate, weak treaty? In that context, does he further agree that talk of taking into account the criteria, such as human rights, end-use and the rest, is simply not enough? There must be an absolute refusal of permission where these matters are in any kind of doubt.

The noble Lord is on to something, which he has been on to before. He has been second to none in arguing the case for a robust treaty. Indeed, it is the Government’s view that this treaty should be robust and that a weak treaty which would have the effect of legitimising lower standards of arms control, arms export, arms import, arms trade and arms transport would be no addition at all. He is entirely correct that this needs to be a robust treaty. We have aimed for that. We believe that certain things are in reach. Countries which appeared to be extremely negative to start with are now taking a more positive and constructive attitude, and we aim to make substantial progress on a robust treaty.

Perhaps I may say how very welcome the reply of the Minister has been, as was the speech by the Minister for International Development in the past few days. Given that 153 of the 193 member states of the United Nations have strongly supported the arms trade treaty, will the Minister say whether in the last analysis we would be prepared to walk away from an agreement based on a weak consensus?

I am not totally clear of my noble friend’s question. She supports what has been achieved and, as she rightly says, a considerable number of countries have signed up. However, countries which we thought might be much more reluctant have not done so. Certainly, there are key issues yet to be finalised on weapons to be covered and export criteria. These are difficulties. If my noble friend’s question was whether we would walk away if it looked like too weak a treaty, I say that we do not intend that to happen. We intend the treaty to be at least where it is now, with broad agreement discussed on many crucial issues and out of which we can produce a robust treaty.

My Lords, we have long been supportive of a robust attitude to such a treaty. Can the Minister offer any advice as to whether the Government are able to help and support some of those fragile nations which are emerging from conflict or are still in conflict to be able to take part fully in these negotiations? They have so much to gain from a robust treaty.

These fragile nations certainly have much to gain and we want to see their participation. Like all nations, they have a legitimate desire to defend themselves. One must be realistic: if one wants to protect people and nations, some hard-power defence—in other words, weaponry—is needed. There has to be support for sensible, non-repressive arms supplies across international barriers, which can support the proper protection of young nations as they struggle to establish themselves and achieve stability against incursions from outside.

My Lords, in their vision for Britain’s economic future, do coalition Ministers foresee us earning our living to a diminishing extent by contributing to the saturation of unstable areas of the world with weapons? In the process, we tie ourselves into long-term relationships with unsavoury regimes while committing disproportionate amounts of resources that would otherwise be used to construct a more balanced and responsible economy.

The noble Lord paints a bad picture of the international arms trade, and it is bad—largely because of illegal arms trading, with blind eyes being turned by Governments. In our case, we have one of the most rigid supervisions of criteria applications for arms export in the world. We operate on a very close case-by-case basis, and it is generally agreed looking back over the last two tumultuous years in the Arab spring that very rigid controls have broadly operated. Certainly, we have received no evidence to the contrary. But his broader picture of a world awash in arms is precisely the one that must cease and to which this arms trade treaty, if we can get it in the form we want, will make some contribution. It will not cure all the problems but it will make some contribution.

Will my noble friend make available the current draft of this important document so that we can all express our views on it?

I will have to see whether there is a draft at this stage. The next stage of conferring in July is aimed at creating a draft, upon which thereafter a treaty could be built. If there are documents that can be usefully circulated, I will certainly look and see what can be done.