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Broken by its own champion – a very un-happy birthday to the Global Arms Trade Treaty

The global Arms Trade Treaty came into force last Christmas Eve. In many ways a very familiar story of a miracle birth, heralded as a new chapter for humankind.

One year on, though, and it’s already been broken. More shockingly still, by its own self-declared greatest champion - the UK.

The Arms Trade Treaty was hard won. It doesn’t require an arms expert to work out that most of the world’s worst horrors are committed with weapons, but arms experts from groups like Amnesty, Oxfam, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and the Control Arms campaign came together in an unprecedented way in a decade-long campaign calling for the treaty to be instituted. Controlling the global arms trade and pre-empting the likelihood of atrocities, we argued, would help cut the tyrants off at source by denying them access to their tools of violence and destruction.

But like any treaty, it only works if it’s followed and a damning ‘legal opinion’ today echoed what we’ve been saying for months; the UK has broken it.

The lawyers who drafted the comprehensive legal opinion, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers, conclude that the UK government is acting in breach of its obligations arising under the Arms Trade Treaty, European rules, and its own national controls, by continuing to authorise transfers of weapons to Saudi Arabia, weapons which are capable of being used in Yemen.

Yemen is this year’s forgotten war. It’s a protracted civil war between the Huthi rebels in favour of former President Saleh, and Southern separatist supporters of President Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia. Since March, the Saudi-led coalition has conducted a brutal campaign of airstrikes in Yemen, in which more than 2,000 civilians have been killed, thousands displaced and the country’s infrastructure decimated.

The UK government asserts that it’s not taking an active part in the military campaign. However, it has issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia since bombing began in March. Those licences include more than £1.75 billion worth of combat aircraft and bombs for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

David Cameron hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would 'save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world.' He said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in securing an agreement that would make the world safer for all. 'The United Kingdom has led efforts to secure the Arms Trade Treaty from the start' crowed a Foreign Office press release from this time last year. And so it did. But in the intervening year since the treaty came into force, the UK government has been busy moving the goal posts.

What it boils down to is an analysis of risk. The purpose of the Arms Trade Treaty is to prevent arms sales when it is more likely than not that they could be used to commit war crimes and other violations of international law. That’s COULD be, not HAVE been.

The UK has demanded evidence that specific UK weapons have been used to commit atrocities and is at pains to point out that our close allies, Saudi Arabia, have given repeated assurances that it is abiding by international law. The problem is that it clearly isn’t.

There is mounting daily evidence that the Saudi-led bombing campaign is killing civilians in ever increasing numbers, bombing schools, hospitals and generally failing to take the necessary steps to protect civilians. You’d have thought that in the face of such damning evidence of likely war crimes being perpetrated, assurances from those responsible for those carrying out these very crimes should be taken with large degree of scepticism at the very least.

There is obviously a more fundamental problem here. The Arms Trade Treaty (and indeed the whole logic behind any controls on the arms trade) is designed to prevent crimes taking place. The UK is running a coach and horses through its arms trade laws by arguing that it’s fine to continue to supply arms until such a time that it’s proven that those weapons have been used for war crimes. That’s not how it works, and they know it.

The Arms Trade Treaty requires states to calculate the likelihood of the weapons they sell being used to commit atrocities, not to wait and see if they are. Too late then.

The UK government is like a broken record, repeating their favourite get-off-the-hook refrain 'we haven’t actually seen the proof'. Haven’t seen it, and haven’t sought it. Indeed, the UK government hasn’t even committed to setting up an independent inquiry into whether UK arms are being used in war crimes. The least they could do.

Over the last few weeks alone Amnesty has published evidence of a UK-manufactured missile used to destroy a ceramics factory (a war crime), the deliberate targeting of Yemen’s schools (a war crime) and now the considered opinion of legal experts who conclude the UK is breaking its own laws, EU laws, and the Arms Trade Treaty it personally championed.

Just what will it take for the government to stop flogging these weapons to Saudi Arabia?

Call on the UK to stop selling arms to Saudi 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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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