Britain has a responsibility to ensure tough standards are imposed on the sale of our weapons

The UN will soon meet to agree a global arms trade treaty and as events in Syria show, thousands of lives depend on on the outcome

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The Independent Online

In 1996 a group of Nobel Laureates first set out their vision for a global accord to better regulate the international arms trade.

Seventeen years later, there is still no effective international regulation of the global arms trade and people continue to lose their lives across the world because of  the inadequately-controlled trade in weapons and munitions.

But this coming week the UN will meet to try and agree a new arms trade treaty which carries international support, and crucially includes America, Russia, and China. Thanks to the legacy of leadership on this issue bequeathed by the last Government, the UK has a central part to play in these negotiations.

Being the world’s fourth largest arms exporter, we have a responsibility to ensure that we impose tough standards on the sale of our weapons and munitions. And as a nation proud of our ability to influence global trends, Britain must now prove we are also able to respond to them.

When the international community met last year on the same topic it failed to reach agreement and the UK failed to take a lead. This second attempt to reach a deal is even more urgent.

In government, Labour introduced some of the toughest arms export regulations in the world, but growing concern about movement of arms globally has rightly prompted new calls for a broader and tougher set of international standards. So when UK Foreign Office ministers head to New York this week they will have our full support to sign up to a deal that works for the Britain and helps introduce tougher rules.

The time spent last year was not wasted; it made clear the areas of consensus and pointed to the issues which still require further work to reach agreement. Crucially, international leaders must not now jettison a strong treaty in favour of a lowest common denominator treaty. And any efforts to protect the legitimate arms trade should not be allowed to perpetuate illegitimate practices. To achieve this, loopholes and exemptions in the existing draft Treaty must be addressed.

Firstly, all types of weapons transfer should be covered so that gifts or loans are also subject to scrutiny against the criteria of preventing human rights abuse. Secondly, the Treaty must also apply to all existing and future transfer agreements. As it stands the draft treaty would not be strong enough to prohibit the weapons agreement which Russia has with the Assad regime in Syria. As an existing weapons cooperation agreement, Russia is free to continue to upgrade and refurbish Syria’s attack helicopters, despite the horrific human rights violations which are taking place in Syria.

A priority for the UK Government must be to correct this and ensure the Treaty specifically includes a commitment to review existing defence agreements between countries once there is evidence of routine and regular human rights violations. Without this, allowing Russia to continue to supply President Assad's regime, risks ensuring the efforts in New York this week are seen as a failure.

Thirdly, effective oversight and guidelines require a treaty based on comprehensive standards. For that reason we support the inclusion of a wider range of weaponry, including ammunition, small arms and components.

Fourth, we must encourage the UK Government to agree to a deal which delivers transparent and legally binding standards. Mandatory national reports of the countries to whom arms are sold should be seriously considered.

The treaty must ensure that arms will not be transferred if there is a substantial risk that they would be used to commit human rights abuses, and it should address the growing use of weapons in gender-based sexual violence in conflict zones across the world.

Britain can not only lead on the negotiations next week, but must also take a lead on exploring reform to our own domestic guidelines. Labour has proposed early Parliamentary scrutiny of export decisions in order to increase transparency and seek cross-party consensus. As they stand, the current risk assessment criteria used in relation to export licenses are too dependent on retrospective assessments. These focus on evidence of historical human rights abuses, rather than seeking to future-proof any agreements with a more preemptive set of criteria.

The Government should encourage the international community to place greater emphasis on existing social, political and economic drivers of conflict that we now know would offer a better assessment of emerging threats and danger of future instability.

The tragic unravelling of Syria over the past two years should teach us that historical stability will not prevent a rapid slide towards volatility if the conditions become as severe as they have in Syria. The brutal violence – and the ready supply of arms to all sides in Syria – reinforces the need for a truly comprehensive international arms deal. In New York this week the government must now act to secure one.

Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP is Shadow Foreign Secretary. Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP is Shadow Defence Secretary