Douglas Alexander: It’s time for the Government to translate talk of a safer world into a Treaty


In the time it takes to read this article, at least one person will have died from armed violence.

But this ongoing and tragic consequence of an unregulated global arms trade can be addressed through a comprehensive and legally binding international agreement.

That is why the recent criticisms of the UK Government’s approach at the UN Conference currently underway are so concerning.

A recent report published by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Control concluded that the Government seems to have “adopted a different policy from its predecessor; appearing to be prepared to weaken the Arms Trade Treaty in order to try to ensure that key arms exporting countries become signatories.”

And with the talks ongoing, some are now speculating that the UK Government is attempting to do back-room deals with the most reluctant participants at the Conference to try and water down the agreement for the sake of securing their support.

This is deeply worrying news.

While negotiation inevitably means compromise, compromise must not turn into capitulation.

As International Development Secretary in the last Government, I saw first hand the human cost of an unregulated trade in arms that stifled development, ruined lives and trapped people in poverty,

In Africa alone, armed violence costs over $19 billion a year – which is roughly equivalent to the entire amount the continent receives in aid ever year.

But this week there's a real chance to change this.

Only 52 of the worlds 192 governments have any kind of regulation or the sale of arms at all.

Fewer than half of those actually enforce those laws or penalise those who violate them.

That is why this month’s Conference is so crucial.

One of the Labour achievements I'm most proud of is getting countries to agree to attend the UN Conference now underway in New York.

But if getting people to turn up was hard, reaching a global agreement with all those that attended will be even tougher.

So far, those countries that have expressed the biggest reservations about agreeing a global treaty include Russia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.

This should come as no surprise given Russia’s policy of continuing to export arms to Syria and China’s refusal to back an arms embargo on a regime that is openly and brutally slaying its own people.

We must not relent in our efforts to bring these crucial partners to the table.

But this strategy must not come at any cost.

In the days ahead, the UK Government must work to achieve four key aims from this Treaty.

First, it must prevent the transfer of arms where there is risk of importers violating human or humanitarian law or where arms trade would stifle or undermine development.

Second, it must be legally binding if it is to have any hope of forcing compliance among those that would oppose it.

Third, it must be comprehensive – covering a broad range of weapons, ammunition and armaments.

And fourthly, it must be verifiable – including having adequate reporting and transparency measures included within it.

The legal and responsible trade of conventional arms supports jobs and skills at home and is necessary in helping countries protect themselves against violent aggressors.

The role of the defence industry in our economy, and in our security, must not be underestimated.

But it is also right that in Government we pushed for the UK to have some of the tightest controls on arms sales in the world, including banning handguns and cluster bombs and cutting the number of our own warheads.

And that is why in Opposition we have urged a comprehensive review of our existing policy in light of long held assumptions about the criteria used in export policy being challenged and undermined by recent events.

But there can be no substitute for a global agreement to prevent the spread of unregulated arms.

Trade in almost every kind of commodity is now subject to international agreements. From bananas to oil, it is now time that arms are also included in that list.

And in these final days and hours it is vital that the UK continue to push for a strong treaty.

What is required now is leadership – not just support.

But when 74 countries took to the floor of the UN to appeal for progress in the stalled negotiations – Britain was nowhere to be seen – this raises real questions not just about their capacity to lead, but their conviction to support.

For the Government, and its international partners, it’s now time to translate talk of a safer world into a Treaty that would help make the world safer.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow Foreign Secretary

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