One chance to end the misery

Opinion article written on the 03 Jul 2012

Ema Tagicakibau was held hostage at gunpoint by rebels during the Fijian coup ledby George Speight in 2000. The experience gave her a unique insight into the power of guns to perpetuate violence and seize power in Pacific society.

Ema, a former member of the Fijian parliament, is just one of the millions who are repressed, killed, injured, raped and forced to flee their homes every year as a result of violence facilitated by the irresponsible sale of weapons.

Despite being worth an estimated $1.2 trillion annually, the arms trade has less international controls than the trade in bananas or iPods. This means that all too often guns and other weapons are ending up in the hands of human rights abusers and repressive regimes.

While a patchwork of domestic and regional controls exists, they have failed to adapt to the increasingly globalised nature of the arms trade. Arms companies are worldwide operations, often taking advantage of weaker standards and regulations in the developing world. Parts and components are often manufactured in several locations, then assembled in countries with lax controls on where the finish product ends up.

We need look no further than our own doorstop to see what can happen when these loopholes are exploited.

As recently as 2009, an arms broker exploited gaps in New Zealand law to set up a shelf companyto charter aplaneto transport arms valued at an estimated $18 million from North Korea to Iran. Fortunately, the cargo was intercepted at Bangkok, and it was revealed that up to eight companies with ties to at least 10 countries, from Vanuatu to Spain, were involved in the deal.

Clearly, a global problem requires a global solution. The idea of an arms trade treaty, establishing internationally recognised, legally binding standards for weapons sales, was first championed by a group of non-government organisations, including Oxfam and Amnesty International, in 2003.

After a decade of campaigning, the idea is finally becoming a reality, with UN negotiations on an arms trade treaty starting in NewYork today. Foreign Minister Bob Carr will lead the Australian delegation that includes a representative from Oxfam Australia.

Australia is a long-term supporter of the negotiations, which have the backing of 153 governments, including several of the world’s major arms exporters. However, there remains a risk the process could be derailed by a small group of countries looking to block it.

Another distinctpossibilityis a weak, watered-down agreement that suffers a “death by 1000 cuts” as a result of exemptions and compromises bartered in the negotiating room. Inmanyways, this would be a worse result, legitimising a weak global standard that would allow irresponsible sales of weapons to continue with a new seal of approval.

With only four weeks to finalise agreement of the treaty, the Australian government may feel the pressure to accept a compromise, lowest common denominator outcome rather than a treaty that will actually prevent arms from being used to abuse human rights and fuel conflicts. We must not allow to this happen.

While nota major exporter 9f arms, Australia has a pivotal role to play in preventing a weak treaty from becoming a reality.

As a co-author of the original UN resolution that led to these negotiations and a respected international player on disarmament issues, the Australian government must use its credibility on the issue to advocate for the strongest possible instrument.

This includes continuing to challenge the argument that certain arms and types of weapons sales, such as ammunition, are too hard to include in an arms trade treaty.

Both governments and NGOs have produced a wealth of research to refute the rationale for such exemptions, and Australia must harness these arguments to ensure dangerous loopholes are avoided.

We have one opportunity for an arms trade treaty in 2012. We urge the Australian government to stand firm and bring home a bullet-proof treaty that truly makes a difference.

Andrew Hewett is executive director of Oxfam Australia.

This opinion editorial was first published in The Australian on 3 July 2012.