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Greater transparency around the arms trade would save countless lives

calendar September 13, 2016

Read the original report in The Guardian

ANNA MACDONALD: CONTROL ARMS

Horrific images of bloodshed from across the world have kept coming all summer. The photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, in shock after being dragged from the rubble of his home in Aleppo, stunned the world, as have images of devastated families made homeless or left in mourning by Saudi airstrikes on Yemen.

Little Omran exemplified the horror of Syria’s lengthy and bloody civil war. Many people looked at that photo and thought, “I wish could do something.” This week, in Geneva, a major conference is taking place that is full of people who do have the power to bring an end to the arms sales that are making so many suffer.

The Arms Trade Treaty is a relatively new UN treaty. It became international law in December 2014 and its annual Conference of States Parties brings together all the governments that have joined the treaty to debate its implementation and impact. The treaty brings some much-needed regulation to the $100bn global arms trade. The elephant in the room here is the fact that in Yemen civilians are dying every day because bombs, provided to Saudi Arabia by states sitting around the table, are being dropped on them.

Earlier this year, campaign group Control Arms analysed arms transfers to Saudi Arabia in the context of the Yemen crisis. We found nine parties to the ATT issued licences or carried out arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2015: France, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, as well as two signatories, Turkey and the US. These sales and licences totalled more than US$25bn and included bombs, rockets and missiles – just like those falling on the people of Yemen.

Some states, specifically the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden, have tightened up their export controls in response to the crisis in Yemen; but several, notably the UK, US and France, are continuing with business as usual, violating the treaty in plain sight. Whether for profit or diplomatic gain, this is appalling hypocrisy. It is also illegal. The UK, in a statement to the conference, confirmed its unerring commitment to the ATT, and chided those who might criticise treaty violators because “this could deter others joining”. Perhaps not violating the treaty would be a better way to discourage criticism.

The ATT prohibits arms deals where there can be reasonable knowledge the arms will be used in violations of international humanitarian law. Reports from UN experts, human rights groups and news reports of bombings of schools, hospitals and mosques could not make this clearer.

The arms trade has operated in the shadows for decades. With the ATT in force, arms deals may not be made covertly any more. Each state must submit an annual report that declares which transfers have been authorised. This week, states will also decide whether these reports should be made public or stay secret. There should be no question about this. They shouldn’t even be given a choice. Reports must be made publicly available.

Greater transparency can help stop illegal sales, reduce the risk of arms being diverted to terrorist groups and criminals; stop the flood of weapons to human rights abusers, and stop the arms that are being used to violate humanitarian law in too many communities on too many days. It’s time to shine a light on this deadly trade.

So this week, the stakes could not be higher. The arms trade is big business for many states – but for so many people around the world it’s so much more. What happens in Geneva is a matter of life or death.