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Minister Alistair Burt shares his thoughts on the Arms Trade Treaty

After two decades of campaigning for tighter controls on the arms trade, it has come down to two weeks. 

As you know, I’m in New York for the final crucial talks to agree an historic international Arms Trade Treaty. If successful, this will be the first time there is a legally binding global agreement to regulate the trade and transfer of arms. Crucially it must prevent the flow of weapons from fuelling human rights abuses. And we have just days to make that happen.

To help ensure the UK stands strong on human rights on the negotiating floor, you’ve been emailing Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt. So when he came to the United Nations recently for the talks, he shared his thoughts with me on why an international Arms Trade Treaty is so important.

Remember, these are his thoughts - not mine, and not Amnesty’s. Much of what Minister Burt says is promising, but we need to ensure that the UK is the champion of a strong treaty, not the broker of a weak one. Email Minister Burt now and ensure the UK steps it up on the negotiating floor

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt shares his thoughts and hopes for a successful Arms Trade Treaty

How do you feel that talks are progressing at the UN?

I visited New York myself for the start of the Conference and spoke to a number of delegations as well as civil society representatives. The clear sense I got was that the negotiations had made a good start. There is a positive atmosphere in the conference hall, talks are substantive and constructive.

Like the UK, the overwhelming majority of the international community wants a strong Treaty which will be broadly applied and we are clearly determined to achieve it.

I thought that the opening statement by the UN Secretary General set the context very clearly: Armed violence kills more than half a million people each year… We owe this landmark UN treaty to those who have fallen victim to armed conflict and violence…to all the children deprived of a better future …  and to all those risking their lives to build peace and make this a better world.”

You’ve travelled to many conflict-ridden countries and regions during your time at the Foreign Office.  Why do you think an Arms Trade Treaty would make such a difference, given what you’ve seen? 

The Treaty will establish for many States, for the first time a framework for arms control. The Treaty clearly emphasises that certain transfers are prohibited and provides strong guidance for refusal of others. By universalising these standards we will help to prevent the spread of arms to situations where grave human rights abuses occur.

The UK is taking a bold approach, we are seeking to strengthen the Treaty to be as clear as possible on the importance of respecting international humanitarian law and human rights.

The UK Government has been pretty positive about securing a strong Arms Trade Treaty. What would you consider to be an unsuccessful treaty?

The Arms Trade Treaty needs to set the highest possible common international standards and to apply globally and the major arms exporters of today and tomorrow must be part of it.

Together the United States, Russia and China account for over 50% of the international arms trade. We believe therefore that the Treaty needs broad, ideally universal, participation to achieve its full potential. The Treaty must place human rights and international humanitarian law at the forefront of globally agreed standards for the international arms trade.

It should cover all conventional weapons, their munitions, parts and components and ammunition. It should establish the principles and practices for controlling arms, but States should continue to do more to ensure they have in place the most robust standards possible.

Have the Control Arms Supporters in the UK made a difference in terms of giving the Arms Trade Treaty due attention here for the UK Government? 

Absolutely. We have worked closely with Control Arms and their supporters throughout both in regard to the campaign to raise awareness of this issue and in regard to developing the Treaty text. In both areas the close relationship has been invaluable. Civil society has built the momentum for this Treaty and the UK Government has acted upon it. I personally very much value my regular contacts with [Amnesty Director] Kate Allen and others from the NGO community.

How do you persuade sceptical countries to get on board with a strong Treaty? 

Momentum is important. There is no question that the great majority of states, from all regions of the world, are solidly behind an Arms Trade Treaty and sceptics have to recognise that.

Pressure is also important; UK Ministers from the Prime Minister down, as well as our Posts overseas and officials in London have been active in engaging with states to ensure that the arguments for this Treaty are clearly understood, to dispel misunderstandings and to work to resolve differences.

In particular, we are pointing out that the Treaty includes important provisions for importers as well as exporters e.g. agreed criteria, information sharing and international cooperation and assistance. During my visit to New York I met with as many delegations as a working day would allow.

Communicating the UK perspective and listening to others is essential to bridge the gaps that remain, to bring us to the point of agreement.

What happens if the Conference fails to agree a strong Treaty in March? 

I am optimistic and realistic: we have a good base from which to build following the significant progress of last July and we have heard strong messages of support for the Treaty and for working towards consensus. There remain a number of significant hurdles to overcome and success is far from guaranteed. States will again need to show their commitment late into the evenings and over weekends to negotiate the strongest possible Treaty with the broadest possible support – which is central to UK’s approach.

Campaigners too will need to continue their efforts over the next couple of weeks. No one will get every detail that they seek. But we are very close and must not let the best become the enemy of the good. We must press for the tough standards we want and be prepared to reach agreement.

The remit for the Conference President is to achieve consensus on an Arms Trade Treaty and I know that he is completely dedicated to achieving this goal. Following the Conference he will report to the UN General Assembly on the ultimate success or failure of the Conference in completing its remit.

Until that point we should all expend every effort to achieve consensus on a robust Treaty, which would be truly historic.

What kind of impact do you think that a robust Arms Trade Treaty would have on the world?

While an Arms Trade Treaty will not end the trade in illicit weapons completely, it will help to make the world a safer place.

It would establish for the first time a legally-binding set of global commitments on national arms export controls. It would require national governments to assess all arms exports against criteria including human rights and to deny an export if it poses unacceptable risks. Authorisations of exports would be reported. Arms brokering would be regulated. The legitimate trade in arms would be protected and international collaboration promoted through the introduction of common international standards.

This Treaty will save lives, reduce suffering, promote stability, underpin sustainable development, combat terrorism and crime, and protect the legitimate arms trade. The time has come to reach agreement and conclude this Treaty now.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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