Bloody scenes from Syria remind us why we need an effective #armstreaty

This morning I volunteered to write Amnesty’s press blog because there’s simply so much to say in the world of guns, tanks, bullets and the like. But the problem is (or perhaps was), because there’s so much to say I didn’t know where to start!

However, the reports of the bloody mass killings in the province of Hama in Syria have to take precedence. The Telegraph reports how Syrian government forces used helicopter gunships and tanks to shell the Tremseh village. The BBC reports that the heavy military assault by government forces was swiftly followed by close-range execution style killings carried out by pro-government Shabiha militia. The fact that such atrocities can be committed with such ease is simply staggering. Particularly given just that less than two months ago, the country faced international repudiation for the bloody massacre in Houla where children were reported to have been slaughtered in their homes.

It is incomprehensible that there are no tighter internationally-agreed sanctions upon Syria given that the government continues to flagrantly and audaciously commit bloody  crimes against humanity. As well as a strengthening of the UN presence in the country, there also has to be global agreement that no country should support the arming of Syria government forces.  Russia’s recent pledge to stop all new arms deals to Syria is a step in the right direction, but as Amnesty pointed out earlier this week, it means nothing if Russia continues to honour existing arms contracts.

Today’s devastating news of the killings in Syria certainly throws into sharp relief just how poorly regulated the global arms trade is, and why on-going talks at the United Nations for a global Arms Trade Treaty are vital.  Although the main debate is taking place in New York as I type, a healthy number of British MPs tackled this important topic in a debate in the House of Commons last night.  Tabled by Martin Caton MP, it was the FCO Minister, Alistair Burt, who is responsible for ATT negotiations who assured the House (and other avid ATT-watchers) of the UK Government’s robust commitment to delivering an effective Arms Trade Treaty which will respect human rights.

Specifically he said:

"The problems caused by the unregulated trade in conventional arms need to be addressed. The lack of effective and coherent global regulation fuels conflict, destabilises regions and hampers effective social and economic development. It can also have devastating effects on communities and individuals, with armed violence destroying lives and livelihoods and displacing communities. A lack of regulation means that arms can slip into the hands of those who would use them against our own troops and civilians. That situation has gone on too long, and we need to stop it now."

Mr Burt later added:

“This is an historic opportunity to make the world a safer place. The international community owes it to the people whose lives have been blighted by conflict and armed violence associated with the unregulated trade in arms to use the remaining two weeks to maximum effect. The UK will be working tirelessly to this end. One of the purposes for which the UN was founded was to achieve co-operation in solving problems of a humanitarian character and to encourage respect for human rights. An effective, legally binding ATT will help to do that and more, and we are sparing no effort in our pursuit of that aim.”

Frankly, we at Amnesty couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It’s great that the UK is determined to see as robust an Arms Trade Treaty as possible.

However – as with everything – words have to be followed up by actions.

And the damning report by the Committees on Arms Export Control out today shows that the UK Government still has a long way to go before its arms export mechanism is in efficient working order.

One of the headlines from the MPs’ report was that the UK Government had to revoke 158 arms export licences for weapons expected to head to the Middle East on human rights grounds. Now I suppose it depends on how you read this information. The Government may argue that the fact that they revoked the licences suggests that the new arms export control mechanism is working. But for me, I wonder why were 158 licences initially granted to these countries, given the instability of the region in the first place?

As the Press Association points out the MPs’ report also rebuked ministers for classifying equipment such as sniper rifles, submachine guns and armoured fighting vehicles as "crowd control goods".

The MPs’ Committee – chaired by Sir John Stanley – has urged the Government to be more cautious when considering arms export licences to what they described as “authoritarian regimes” which might use the weapons to facilitate internal repression.  Given the bloody scenes from Syria, they’ve got a good point. 

Patricia Lewis from the think tank Chatham House delivered an excellent interview on the Today programme (1h09 onwards) this morning addressing the need for the Government to re-consider its approach on arms export controls and reminding us why the Arms Trade Treaty talks are so important. And read what Olly Sprague (from New York), and our partner NGOs had to say about the report here.

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I agree wholeheartedly in a strong and robust ATT. Also I would like to see the actual UN reformed, particularly the Security Council which I believe is no longer fit for purpose as events in Syria clearly show.

Here is a shortened article on this issue which I wrote some months ago :

"So what reforms could be possible for the UNSC ? One possible change would be an increase in the number of permanent members. As the quote from the preamble above shows the UNSC has strong emphasis on preventing another World War. It is in fact the main defeated countries namely Germany and Japan, as well as Brazil and India who have made the strongest demands, particularly as these countries are major financial contributors and troop donors to the UN in one shape or another. Critics to this reform would say that an increase in membership in this way would only just increase the “chairs around the high table” and they do have a point.
True democrats would suggest having resolutions passed by all members of the UN, currently at 193. However problems might arise in the formation of “blocs” of states and many founding members would not want to give up their standing overnight or perhaps at all. Interestingly in relation to the situation in Syria, the General Assembly of larger members seems to making more headway.
One possibility would include a small expansion of the permanent membership of the UNSC but with reform around the veto system. For instance if a permanent member vetoed a resolution over one issue, then the resolution could be quickly changed and re-submitted. However if objections were made again on another matter, in some obvious blocking tactic, then the resolution should go through regardless. If a member keeps up this obvious tactic then it could be voted off the UNSC and a new member allowed to join. This method would hopefully “crystallise the thoughts” of the members of the UNSC to the matter in hand.
So why does this all matter ? Well it matters in relation to time. If a resolution is stuck, then no positive action can be taken by the UN in regards to serious issues of security, peace and human rights around the world. Time doesn’t kill the UN but it does kill many innocent citizens of conflict throughout the world."

Daveyboy 7 years ago

Why not call for a universal arms embargo then, on both sides? It would appear Tremseh was a case of the opposition forces attacking the Syrian military and being destroyed in detail. One has to be careful about screaming massacre every 15 minutes. It is a civil war, there were also incidents when lightly armed convoys of Syrian police (as per cease fire & no heavy weapons) being demolished by a better armed ( on the day) Syrian opposition. The latter, the insurgents are forcing prisoners to drive suicide bombs into checkpoints, I assume the leverage is a wife or kids. It is a civil war when weaker forces meet stronger forces, one side gets completely destroyed, as one appears to have @ Tremseh, that's the way it works. It is not terribly helpful to blame the Syrian govt. for faux massacres which are not actually illegal, in the sense of being a war crime.

Gregory Carlin 7 years ago

'A UN spokeswoman issued a statement after inspectors visited the scene of Thursday's attack, in which at least 200 people are said to have died. The BBC's Jim Muir says the initial findings seem to contradict earlier reports of a massacre of civilians. Instead, the inspectors' preliminary findings are more in line with the government's claims that it was attacking what it calls "nests of terrorists" or rebel hideouts, our correspondent says.'

The rebellion has degenerated into wild men attacking anything which is official, they are not hiding, they are hunting the representatives of the state.

Many of these massacres claims are not true. Unless one takes a stand against criminals, on whatever side, one will be unable to rely upon the Geneva convention for our soldiers.

It is in the interests of the west, to call a spade a spade, the FSA are in some cases at least, a motley collection of warlords, who are murderously out of control.


Gregory Carlin 7 years ago

@Gregory Carlin yes this is an extremely volatile situation in Syria and facts of actual events are extremely limited. This is why we are calling on the Syrian authorities to allow unfettered access to the UN mission, to the UN Commission of Inquiry, to international journalists and to international humanitarian and human rights organisations. It's the Syrian authorities who are denying unfettered access - they should let such groups and individuals in to ascertain the truth and those who doubt the reports of Amnesty should be calling loudly for this also.

EuletteStaff 7 years ago

It is unclear to Amnesty. That's a competence issue your organization certainly needs to remedy. Firstly, the regime does not control all of Syria. There is a sectarian civil war. The insurgents in the hills outside Aleppo make the Taliban look like liberals. What Amnesty is asking is beyond the gift of a Syrian President who was found hiding in a cupboard like Claudius. The idea he has the ability to tell the 140,000 Alawi in the professional Syrian army to do X, or Y or Z is a myth. Amnesty should instead call for an arms embargo on any combatant the UN has accused of crimes against humanity, including the insurgent groupings. Their political directorates are helpfully available for arrest in Paris and other cities, so why not call for warrants? They are the diplomatic agents for one side of a mass murder equation in Syria.

Gregory Carlin 7 years ago

"Why not call for a universal arms embargo then, on both sides? It would appear Tremseh was a case of the opposition forces attacking the Syrian military and being destroyed in detail."

Take that to the bank, because that's what happened. Many of the atrocity claims made by Amnesty were misrepresentations or in some cases simply outright fakery. Do you want examples?

Gregory Carlin 7 years ago