The arms race is now open to too many competitors
This week all the countries of the world will come together in New York for negotiations on a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty. With millions of civilians paying the price every year for unfettered access to conventional weapons, it is hard to think of a more important task.
Conventional weapons – from warships and tanks to fighter jets and machine guns – are too often easy to obtain and every day the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is confronted with the consequences.
We provide medical care for tens of thousands of victims of armed conflict and violent unrest every year in areas as varied as Africa, the Middle East, South America and our own Pacific region. Moreover, assistance for vulnerable people is often not available because humanitarian operations have been suspended or delayed due to armed security threats.
As long as weapons are easily available, this will facilitate violations of international humanitarian law and endanger the provision of humanitarian assistance. It is astounding that while the international trade in dangerous materials – including hazardous chemicals, substances that deplete the ozone layer, hazardous waste and narcotic drugs – is regulated, an international treaty governing the trade in conventional weapons does not yet exist.
We now have the opportunity to remedy the absence of international standards in this area. Governments should seize this unique opportunity to curb the costs exacted by poorly regulated international arms transfers.
Over the past 10 years, efforts to limit the human cost in this area have been gaining momentum. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, supported by a broad range of civil society organisations, has repeatedly appealed to governments to enhance protection for civilians in armed conflicts and post-conflict situations by strengthening controls on arms transfers.
At the United Nations, preparations to address this issue have been underway since 2006 and there is now broad-based support for the adoption of an effective Arms Trade Treaty. The United Nations General Assembly has acknowledged on numerous occasions that the absence of uniform international standards for transferring conventional weapons contributes to armed conflict, displacement, crime and terrorism, which, in turn, undermines peace, reconciliation, safety, security and sustainable development.
Under the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, all States have an obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. This entails a responsibility to ensure the arms and ammunition they transfer do not end up in the hands of those who may be expected to use them in violation of international humanitarian law. To achieve this, the Arms Trade Treaty should require States to assess whether the weapons they are transferring will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law; the treaty should prohibit transfers when there is a clear risk of that happening.
Conventional weapons of any kind can be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and grave human rights violations. For this reason, the treaty should cover all such weapons. It is equally important the treaty cover ammunition, which is the ‘fuel’ of weapons-related violence. There are already massive numbers of weapons in circulation, but their impact depends on a constant supply of ammunition.
Negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty is a historic opportunity to reduce the incalculable human and social costs of easy access to conventional arms and ammunition. Reaching agreement on the treaty will be difficult and the negotiating teams in New York undoubtedly have their work cut out for them. But the potential gains are great.
This is a critical humanitarian issue which should unite the Government, Opposition and all political parties represented in the Australian parliament. A robust arms trade treaty can make a difference for millions of people living with insecurity and deprivation. We must do everything we can to make it a reality.
Robert Tickner is the CEO of Australian Red Cross. To find out more about international humanitarian law or make a donation to Red Cross please visit www.redcross.org.au.
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