Nick Clegg: We can lead from the front in disarming

Our example as well as diplomacy will make the world safer

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The world has united in its condemnation of the Syrian regime. With a notable exception. President Assad has been protected at the UN by Russia (and, because of its voting pact, by China). I'm not the first to point to the strategic importance to the Kremlin of Syria, the site of its only military base outside the former Soviet Union. Also significant is that Syria is a prime destination for Russian arms.

The ongoing suffering of the Syrian people was therefore a powerful backdrop to international negotiations on the flow of arms last week. States have a right to defend their citizens and someone has to sell them the necessary means. But states also have a duty to uphold human rights. As long as weapons can be traded with so few checks, commercial and strategic interests will get in the way.

Global rules govern the sale of everything from bananas to endangered species to weapons of mass destruction, but not guns or grenades. Some states, like the UK, uphold tough national regimes and a number of regional frameworks are in place. But some countries barely enforce arms exports laws at all.

This is regulatory failure at its worst – because it carries an enormous human cost. Amnesty International recently confirmed that munitions have continued to enter Sudan, despite evidence they'll be used in Darfur – subject to a UN arms embargo. Around the world 1,000 people are killed daily by small arms wielded by terrorists, insurgents and criminal gangs.

So it is not hyperbolic to describe these negotiations as a matter of life or death. Decisions will be taken in July, and an International Arms Trade Treaty is in sight. But illicit arms trading cannot be stopped overnight. And, to achieve the widest possible sign-up, compromises must be made. There will be obstruction from countries seeking to protect lucrative and strategically important trading relationships. Governments will want to defend domestic defence industries. That in itself is perfectly acceptable, but vested interests will be lobbying hard. In the US, President Obama's support for a treaty has been a game-changer, but Washington faces mounting pressure from powerful interest groups, including the National Rifle Association.

But we mustn't lower our ambitions. As always with international norms, the first, crucial step is laying global ground rules that can be built on over time. What is needed is leadership. The UK has spearheaded this agenda within the UN, for which former Foreign Secretary David Miliband deserves considerable credit. The baton has now passed to the coalition and we understand that credibility abroad rests on leading by example at home. Ours is one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes in the world, but there's always room to do better. We must meet the highest standards if we expect others to do the same.

That's why the coalition introduced restrictions on selling drugs which can be used for lethal injections, successfully pressing the EU to follow suit. When the Arab Spring broke, we quickly reviewed export licences for the countries involved, revoking those which raised concerns. From now on, ministers will be able to immediately suspend licence applications to a country where stability suddenly deteriorates. And we'll shortly appoint an independent reviewer to make sure our export control organisation is living up to its commitments.

Internationally, we'll lead the charge for a robust, legally-binding treaty, covering all conventional weapons. Not only rockets and tanks, but also the landmines and AK-47s that cause so much bloodshed. We'll press states who sign up to block sales that fuel conflict or fail to meet the treaty's obligations on human rights. And we want states to demonstrate they're meeting their commitments.

A perfect system may be a way off, but we're setting our sights high. Properly regulated arms will mean less conflict and fewer lives lost. That's a better, more peaceful world. The UK will lead the way.

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