The arms race for human rights
BERN DEBUSMANNProfits from arms deals tend to trump human rights. The United Nations Security Council, whose five veto-wielding permanent members count among the world’s biggest arms dealers, is falling down on the job. Hypocrisy is rampant as governments pay lip service to human rights.
So says Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, in its latest annual report, published this week. It deplores an “endemic failure of leadership” and says 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – had made clear that “opportunistic alliances and financial interests have trumped human rights as global powers jockey for influence.”
That reference covers Russia, chief armorer of the government of Bashar al-Assad, as well as the United States, which recently resumed arms shipments to the royal rulers of tiny Bahrain, whose crackdown on dissidents has been brutal, though not nearly on the same scale as the campaign to wipe out the opposition in Syria. The death toll there now stands at around 10,000.
To hear Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty tell it, the leaders who have so far failed to match human rights rhetoric with arms export deed have a chance to redeem themselves at a United Nations conference next July to work out a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an idea first put forward in 2003 by a group of Nobel laureates who argued that existing arms control regulations are full of loopholes.
Campaigning for an arms treaty has gathered momentum over the past few years and in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, timed to coincide with the Amnesty International report, representatives of 51 non-governmental organizations [NGOs] described the July conference as an historic opportunity to prevent weapons from ending up in the hands of human rights violators. “We urge you and your administration to play a strong leadership role,” the letter said.
According to arms control experts, there are more rules and regulations governing the trade of bananas than in the trade of tanks, machine guns, sniper rifles and bullets. The lack of common international standards, the argument goes, results in the deaths of thousands of civilians every year at the hand of dictatorial governments, criminals and terrorists.
The existing framework of arms embargoes is not bullet-proof, so to speak. According to the relief organization Oxfam, which has taken a prominent role in advocating for the ATT, countries under arms embargoes imported more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition since the year 2000. Case in point: Darfur. It has been under an arms embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council since 2004, but weapons from Belarus, China and Russia continue to flow despite large-scale human rights violations.
Given the long history of questionable arms deals, a dose of skepticism is in order about the prospect of a treaty that would change a world in which one man’s rights-trampling government is another man’s valuable ally. Case in point: Bahrain.
On May 11, the U.S. State Department said it would end a freeze on military sales to the island state – imposed in September in response to a violent crackdown on dissidents – because of “a determination that it is in the U.S. national interest to let these things go forward,” in the words of an official who briefed reporters. He did not need to explain the nature of the national interest — Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which guards shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-born oil.
National interest trumps human rights concerns. That is as true for the United States, the world’s largest arms manufacturer and exporter, as it is for other arms exporters. Russia, number two in the arms exporters’ ranking, does not cite “national interest” for shipping weapons to Syria, it just refers to compliance with commercial contracts. But its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, Moscow’s only outpost in the Mediterranean, clearly plays a role.
While proponents of a treaty sound optimistic about the possibility of all 193 members of the United Nations agreeing on new regulations, they also say there are different approaches that have yet to be reconciled. One would require that countries “shall not” transfer weapons to recipients who might use them to violate human rights or humanitarian law.
“Without that ‘shall not’ requirement, the treaty would be ineffective,” says Oxfam’s Scott Stedjan. The second approach under discussion as experts prepare for the July conference would require signatories to “take into account” potential risks associated with an arms deal. That’s a loophole big enough to drive a tank through.
In April, the State Department’s point man on the proposed treaty, Thomas Countryman, put things into perspective at a panel discussion arranged by a Washington think tank. Even an effective treaty, he said, “will not fundamentally change the nature of international politics, nor can it by itself bring an end to the festering international and civil conflicts around the world.”
Bernd Debusmann is world affairs columnist.