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Another Day, Another Arms-Trade Scandal, Another Excuse for a Treaty

The story by now should be wearily familiar. Last week France was caught supplying arms to the dictatorial regime in Guinea, which then used them to brutally suppress protesters. This time, it’s Britain. Amnesty International UK asserts that Guinea also used a Mamba armored personnel-carrier that it bought from a South African subsidiary of a UK-based company.

Amnesty International UK’s arms programme director, Oliver Sprague, followed with the predictable call:

An Arms Trade Treaty that does not prevent international arms supplies to those with a persistent record of grave human rights violations like Guinea’s security forces will be a worthless gesture. At the UN this week, the UK and its allies are proposing new procedural rules for the Treaty’s negotiations that could severely restrict progress towards a treaty that can protect rights, lives and livelihoods.

There is certainly a legitimate question about whether exports from South Africa, even if carried out by a British subsidiary, are not first and foremost a matter for South African action. Still, let us assume for the sake of argument that the responsibility falls to Britain.

But Britain has been the biggest cheerleader for the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty. If it feels so strongly about the treaty’s desirability, why does it not ban or control arms exports by British subsidiaries itself? Why is there this appearance of hypocrisy between Britain’s public support for the treaty and the continuation of this trade? The answer is that the treaty is a deeply unserious undertaking, as the actions of its supporters, such as Britain, France, and — far, far more seriously — Iran, prove every day.

And what, by the way, are those “new procedural rules” that threaten to restrict the treaty’s progress? They are the Obama administration’s demand that the negotiations proceed on the basis of consensus. On that score, Amnesty International can relax: far from slowing things down, the pursuit of consensus will accelerate them. Of course, the resulting treaty will be both fast and bad, because consensus is just another word for watering standards down to the lowest common denominator. But that is not the kind of thing that should worry organizations more concerned with the appearance of progress than with its substance.



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