Arms and bolts

When you think about it, there really is little point in closing the stable door once the horse has bolted. That door should have been firmly locked way before the stallion decided to scarper. So when organisations like Amnesty warn governments about trigger-happy security forces with terrible human rights records, perhaps they should listen before sending guns that are then used to commit bloody and grievous abuses. Unfortunately as weve seen in the Middle East and North Africa successive UK Governments have not taken such advice so far. Neither have the US, France, Spain, Italy or several other countries, actually. Instead as seen in Amnestys new report Arms transfers to the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons for an effective Arms Trade Treaty published today these governments supplied weapons, training and equipment to Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries in the region in recent years. For example, just last year the UK authorised the sale of about £1.5 million worth of grenade launchers, machine guns and other similar equipment to Bahrain. Whilst between 2005 and 2010, the UK authorised the sale of more than £6 million worth of ammunition to Libya as well as small arms. By no means is the UK the only government involved in such transfers. Amnesty researchers found cluster bombs from Spain scattered in Misratah, Libya earlier this year. These dangerous, indiscriminate bombs (now banned under EU law) were licensed to Libya by Spain in 2007. Meanwhile Italy has used loopholes in its own law to get small arms for Libya's security forces by classifying them as hunting and sporting weapons to bypass controls on military items. So while the UK and other European governments now censure these governments for repressing and committing serious human rights violations against their own people, there is a cruel irony in the fact that most of the weapons which are being used to commit such heinous abuses are now being used not only against civilians but also NATO forces and have been provided by European countries Governments have to start learning from their repeated mistakes and ensure that they close that stable door firmly from the start. The UK Government has gone some way by last week publishing a review of arms export controls. The review has identified six areas within licensing controls which need strengthening. In particular, it included enhanced oversight and risk-assessment, greater end-use monitoring and greater transparency in reporting. Of course, improvements to licensing controls are a good thing. But so far the government has not provided any detail as to how they will move forward these recommendations. As our report has shown, even if the UK does now tighten its own arms controls to human rights abusers, without international action, this simply leaves the stable door wide open for other countries to continue to supply arms! This is why next years agreement of a new international Arms Trade Treaty is so vitally important. It's a once in a lifetime chance to secure a global agreement that could stop all such future sales, conditional on there being strong cast iron commitments on human rights that set rules that forbid any arms sale where there is a substantial risk they will be used in serious human rights violations. It is vital that the lessons from Middle East and North Africa are learnt and the UK and other governments don't squander this historic moment to reign in the arms trade.

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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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