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Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations

Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2012

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in negotiations on the arms trade treaty taking place at the United Nations in New York, which are due to reach their conclusion on Thursday 26 July and what their ultimate negotiating position is.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In asking this Question, I declare an interest as a trustee of the charity Saferworld and a former director of Oxfam.

My Lords, negotiations in New York are due to conclude on Friday 27 July. The negotiations are complex and sensitive, and at this stage it is not possible to predict the outcome. However, our ambitions remain unchanged. For the UK, success means a robust and effective legally binding treaty with strong provisions on international humanitarian law and human rights. The treaty must include everything from fighter planes to rifles, and bombs to bullets and ammunition. Arms brokering must be controlled and corrupt practitioners prosecuted. It should establish a transparent system whereby states publish a list of controlled goods and report regularly on their arms exports.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree that on matters of such vital importance for global security—as is being underlined every day in Syria, the Gulf, Africa, Asia and elsewhere—that it would have been better for the Government to come with a considered statement on how the negotiations are proceeding and on their position, so that there could have been full and proper exchanges in this House? Does he not accept that there is growing disillusion and indignation across the world that there are all kinds of aspirations but no firm and binding conclusions? If we do not achieve a firm and binding outcome from these negotiations, is there not a case that it would be better to have no treaty at all?

I understand the noble Lord’s strong feelings. He has always been a robust fighter in this very important cause. However, we are at this very delicate and sensitive stage in the negotiations, when we are fighting to achieve a robust treaty and avoid what we would totally reject, which is having to sign a weak consensus. I am not sure that in the middle of the negotiations it would be better to discuss them. The noble Lord, with his experience, will possibly understand that. Although I fully applaud his feelings on this matter, we are at an absolutely crucial stage of mid-negotiation. This is something that has been fought for by officials under successive Governments for over six years. We are poised to achieve the very most that we can, as I outlined in my Answer.

Does the Minister agree that this will very soon represent the culmination of eight years’ work by determined Ministers and officials of both the previous and the present Governments and that we wish them well in these final, concluding days? I have to say that it is very bizarre to have a Private Notice Question that asks for the Government’s negotiating position two days before the final vote, after eight years’ work. Nobody denies the enormous importance of this treaty—for all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has given—so that responsible defence industries can operate in the proper, licensed way and so that the illegal shipment of arms which has caused such difficulty can be properly controlled under an international agreement. In these crucial last two days, is not the best thing for us to wish our negotiators the best possible success in this important undertaking?

My noble friend is absolutely right. I fully endorse everything he says. I believe your Lordships are at heart, and certainly have been in past statements, fully in support of these very difficult negotiations and this high ambition of the British Government and that we should today take the opportunity further to reinforce the support for what officials have struggled to achieve over the years under successive Governments.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise—and I am not asking what our negotiating position is—that between now and Friday it is highly likely that we will have to make a choice between a robust treaty, which is not signed by everyone, and a weak treaty, which will not be worth the paper it is written on because it will be subscribed to by countries like Russia, which is busy exporting arms to a situation of humanitarian disaster in Syria as if there were no tomorrow? Will he confirm the very welcome position he gave that we will stick to our guns—perhaps a slightly unfortunate phrase—and not water down the arms trade treaty that we have set out to get, even if this means that some of the largest exporters are temporarily at least not going to sign up?

My Lords, I have said that we are not going to sign a weak consensus. I know that the noble Lord, who is very versed in and a master of these negotiations, would not expect me to make statements about our negotiating position at this crucial stage. I repeat that a weak consensus or a feeble abandonment is not what is contemplated.

My Lords, we, too, wish the negotiators well, but I think the noble Lord will understand why we are apprehensive. On 13 July, the BIS Select Committee in the other place concluded that the Government seem to have adopted a different policy from that of the previous Administration and appear to be ready to weaken the arms trade treaty in order to placate the arms exporting countries, looking for what would emerge as a lowest common denominator approach. That apprehension is shared in New York. Any discussion with colleagues there will show that. They are deeply concerned that we did not sign the strong text of support calling for a strong treaty, already signed by 74 countries, and that we should consider showing that intent and good will now. Will the Government do so?

I think that that apprehension is ill founded. Ambassador Moritan, who chairs the process, obviously has had to manoeuvre. We have to be realistic that there are sceptics and that there are countries which, from the start, have been outright opponents of anything other than broad political agreements. We have to accept that. Our determination is not to be deviated from the pattern which was reflected under the noble Lord’s own Government, and I repeat that we are determined not to sign a weak consensus but to go for a robust treaty. That remains our position.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when in the past decade $2.2 billion-worth of arms have been sold to countries that are under an arms embargo, such as Iran, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, it is terribly important to get a text of some sort? I have to say, with all due respect, the Labour Benches have been fantastic about this treaty, but the binary question they pose to the House is that we either go for a treaty or, given that it is a consensus procedure, we go for nothing at all. Would it not be better to negotiate to the very last moment to get any text on the paper to build for an incremental future whereby we regulate arms than to settle for nothing, which is what I suspect they are posing?

I do not want to be involved in this polarised binary approach, as my noble friend rightly calls it. We are negotiating very hard. She is quite right that there are very high prizes to be achieved if we can get the robust treaty we want. I think I shall leave it there, except to observe that even with the treaty and, indeed, much more so without a treaty, illicit arms continue to swirl around the world and feed Syria, the killing and the murder, and they will continue to do so unless, step by step, we can move from the treaty to tighter and tighter controls.

My Lords, those of us who follow these matters closely are hearing very strongly from New York that the sceptics are dominating the floor of this conference. We are constantly being impressed by the request that Britain speaks up more in this conference as a leader of those who wish to see a robust treaty. I shall repeat to the Minister the question posed to him by my noble friend Lord Triesman, about it not being too late for the UK Government to sign up to the statement signed by 74 countries setting out the humanitarian bottom line for a robust treaty. Are the Government prepared to consider doing that? It would send a very strong message to these negotiations.

Strong messages are going all the time. As I think the noble Lord knows, we have always said that we want to have a humanitarian dimension fully in this treaty. We have said that, but how we manage to secure our aims in this last vital stage is a matter of delicate negotiation, and I think I must leave it there, although I fully recognise the strong feelings on both sides of the House about this matter.