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International Small Arms Treaty

4 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): If someone were to be shot in this Chamber now, I have no doubt that the Minister for Trade and Investment and I would abandon our debate to do all in our power to save the life of the victim and to apprehend the attacker. After all, what would be the point of debating the control of small arms but ignoring the practical effect? Not one life in this Chamber will have been taken by small arms by the end of our debate, but the fact is that 30 lives will have been extinguished elsewhere: one for every minute that we pontificate and prevaricate.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will have etched in his memory, as I have in mine, that day almost exactly three years ago when the Gujarat earthquake struck. The world was horrified at the loss of approximately 20,000 people, which ripped so many villages and so many communities apart at the start of the new millennium. Action was taken immediately by Governments around the world and millions of pounds in aid were given for relief and for the work of reconstruction. Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity that since the start of this year just 20 days ago, more than 28,000 people around the world have been killed by small arms, yet the Governments of the world have done nothing?

The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems and, in most years, exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms could be described as weapons of mass destruction, but there is still no global non-proliferation regime to limit their spread. Those are not my words, but the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan in his millennium report to the General Assembly.

There are more than 500,000 deaths each year. That figure is hard to understand and those deaths have an enormous impact on communities, families and whole economies. What is even more difficult to understand is that there is no global non-proliferation regime to limit the spread of conventional weapons. Governments do not believe that it is practical. Governments do not believe that it is necessary. Governments do not believe that it is politically possible.

Today, I speak not for our Government or any other. I speak only for those ordinary people in our world who believe that an international arms trade treaty is not impossible and for those ordinary and decent people who consider it the duty of politicians, when confronted with such appalling carnage, to construct such a treaty and to make it happen. We need not only a binding treaty to deal with states that use conventional weapons against their own people, but a treaty that will also tackle those states that produce the weapons and sanction the arms deals that enable that to happen.

Such a treaty has already been drafted. It is the framework convention on international arms transfer, which was prepared under the auspices of a group of Nobel peace prize laureates and convened by Costa Rica's former President, Oscar Arias. It is supported

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by Oxfam, Amnesty International, Safer World and many other international non-governmental organisations working for peace and justice. I commend them for their work on that and urge people to join the "million faces" campaign that seeks to build support for it in this country.

Article 1 simply provides that contracting parties shall adopt and apply in accordance with their national laws and procedures a requirement that all international arms transfers be authorised by the issue of licences.

Article 2 provides that a contracting party shall not authorise international transfers of arms that would violate its obligations under international law, which include those pursuant to the United Nations charter, international treaties already binding on the contracting party and the prohibition on the use of arms that are incapable of distinguishing between combatants and civilians or are such as to cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering.

Article 3 sets out that a contracting party shall not authorise transfers of arms in circumstances in which it has knowledge, or reasonably ought to, that transfers of arms such as those considered are likely to be used in breach of the UN charter of corresponding rules of international law, in the commission of serious human rights violations, in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law, in the commission of genocide or crimes against humanity or used after they have been diverted and then used in any of those ways. I do not propose to adumbrate all nine clauses of the draft framework convention, but I hope that the clauses that I have referred to appear clear and sensible because that is what they are.

The Minister will be well aware that I have been critical in the past of the Government's failure to implement full extra-territorial controls, a register of brokers and checks of end-users as part of the secondary orders for the Export Control Act 2002. I recognise that the Government have gone further than their predecessors in strengthening arms export controls, but we have stopped short of the regulations that would establish the highest standards in the area.

In exchanges with the Quadripartite Committee and in response to 130 or so parliamentary questions that I have tabled on the issue, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has appeared to put what she considers the needs of industry above the humanitarian need that the arms industry creates. I well remember in one exchange with her officials being told that the Secretary of State was concerned not to impose bureaucratic controls on brokers who might legitimately be selling small arms to a foreign police force. I suspect that neither the Secretary of State nor her official had bothered to check the percentage of small arms held by police forces around the world. It is just 2.8 per cent. of all those in circulation—a tiny fraction.

That showed that our Government have lost track of the genuine scale of the problem. By contrast, 52.9 per cent. of all the world's small arms are held by private individuals. A further 37.8 per cent. are held by Government armed forces. Just 0.2 per cent. are held

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by armed opposition groups. It is the overwhelming availability of those arms that creates the desperate loss of life to which I refer, and yet our Government sought to justify their refusal to implement a register for brokers and full extra-territorial controls on the basis of the problems that that would create for just 2.8 per cent. of the global market. Let us face it, a lot of those police forces are ones to which we should not be too happy about selling arms.

We must realise that this has ceased to be a theoretical policy issue about bureaucratic interference in the legitimate export of arms manufactured in this country. It is a humanitarian issue about how we address global suffering on an enormous scale. Action is required now to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the arms trade and, because it is an international trade, the best way to deal with it is at an international level. We have binding international treaties on the movement of peoples and the flow of funds. It therefore does not seem unreasonable to have a unique and binding international treaty on arms control.

The availability of arms fuels violent conflicts. More than that, however, it distorts the real priorities of nations and communities. With global military spending amounting to $839 billion each year, the world is truly over-armed and underdeveloped. By contrast, it would cost just $10 billion to establish universal primary education for Africa, which is one of our millennium development targets for the continent.

Deaths from conventional weapons in developing countries do not give the full picture of misery, however. Of course it is crazy that there should be one gun—usually a Kalashnikov—for every 5.8 people in Pakistan. However, the arms and shooting fatalities figures do not show the number of people who die when immunisation programmes for children break down because of armed violence caused by the proliferation of weapons or how AIDS programmes in Africa cannot function in the middle of a war zone. It is important to understand that deaths at the end of the barrel of a gun are just the tip of a very cold iceberg. One person every minute dies because of conventional weapons, but we cannot calculate how many die because of the chaos that such weapons bring.

Highly developed countries do not experience civil war and armed conflict. Some 2 per cent. of the world's most developed countries experience any sort of civil war, but 56 per cent. of the world's least developed nations—a clear majority—are gripped by civil war. The opportunity costs to their economies are horrifying. The civil war in Sri Lanka was calculated in 1998 to have cost a staggering $20.8 billion dollars. Interestingly, more than $13 billion of that loss came not from direct expenditure on munitions and the military, but from the loss in economic output. Educated and skilled Sri Lankans fled the country and inward financial investment plummeted. The World Bank has suggested that conflict in Africa causes a 2 per cent. loss of economic growth year on year in every country on the continent. The world cannot afford to continue wasting its human and economic capital in that way.

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It is equally important to understand that the problems do not just disappear when a conflict ends. Half of all post-conflict countries revert to war again within 10 years of peace. If weapons are not removed and alternatives livelihoods are not found for returning combatants, the culture of violence begins to embed itself in a society and violence becomes the accepted means of resolving differences. Crime, smuggling and organised violence establish a pattern that once again destabilises any emerging civil structures.

Only a few months ago, I had occasion in this Chamber to warn of the folly of demobilising the Iraqi army without first depriving those men of their weapons or offering them any programme of reintegration into civil society and alternative paid employment. It is now accepted that that failure has in large measure contributed to the dangerous security situation that continues in that country. The consequent loss of life among both Iraqis and coalition forces has been a heavy price to pay for such an elementary mistake.

Conventional and small arms wreak global havoc. They do so first as the precursor to conflict, precipitating the transformation of civil disputes into wholesale civil wars. That is widely recognised to have been the case in Rwanda prior to the civil war there in 1994. Huge volumes of arms, shipped in from France and China, acted as the trigger that moved the country from tension to conflict and genocide. That genocide was ultimately carried out with agricultural implements, but it was precipitated by the build-up of conventional and small arms, which raised the tension to boiling point.

The availability of these weapons perpetuates and entrenches undemocratic and anti-democratic regimes that systematically violate the human rights of their citizens. All sovereign states have a legitimate resort to arms but that legitimate monopoly on the use of force is strictly circumscribed in international law. The resort to arms can be made only to protect the life and liberty of their citizens from either external attack or internal assault by others.

Arms cannot legitimately be used as a tool of repression by Governments to undermine those very rights to life and liberty. Yet our own Government, along with France and the United States, have recently approved enormous exports of arms to Saudi Arabia, knowing that the Saudi authorities allow no criticism of the state. All political organisations are illegal, and the country has a record of arbitrary detention of its citizens that goes back many years. I say to my hon. Friend that such arms exports ally and associate our Government with regimes that he and I should openly condemn.

Conventional weapons drain the coffers of developing countries, diverting spending from health care and education that is so desperately needed to raise the living standards of their people. Is it not obscene that a country as poor as Pakistan—I make no comment about the nature of its Government—receives $1.3 billion in aid from the US that is spent entirely on arms and so-called security?

An international arms treaty is required to control and monitor arms flows and to ensure that Governments are transparent in their arms deals and

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that there are no safe havens for illicit trading. The present system of weak international control on arms sales and highly unresponsive sanctions regimes delivers very little. People now want more.

A similar mood took hold in the mid-1990s when calls for an international treaty banning land mines reached fever pitch. In the UK, the Government were not prepared for those calls; they took them by surprise. Writing about the land mines treaty in 1995, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), then a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, averred that a treaty would sacrifice

I have often wondered why any man as intelligent as the current shadow Home Secretary would ever willingly embrace political wrongness, but it was his policy, party and Government that the public found to be wrong politically. The Ottawa land mines treaty was one of the early achievements of our Labour Government. I trust that the Minister will consider the quotation as a cautionary tale and not treat the international arms trade treaty in the same cavalier fashion as his predecessor.

The international arms treaty would bring arms exports standards into line with existing responsibilities under international law. By explicitly linking existing international humanitarian legislation with the arms trade it will be possible to enforce breaches more easily. It would legislate for greater co-operation between countries, an international record of transactions and an international database of dealers. It would build on some of the good mechanisms already developed in the EU code of conduct on arms control and other agreements.

I realise that a commitment to sign up to a binding international arms treaty would be a bold step and that many would criticise such a move as anti-business and anti-competitive. The same arguments were used against on a ban on land mines. The call for an international arms treaty is not about ending the legitimate arms industry, or about stopping a country's sovereign right to protection and self defence; it is about developing an effective international system to prevent the humanitarian consequences of the current illicit trade. I do not deny that it could make legitimate arms dealing more expensive, but the idea of the treaty, just like the EU code of conduct, would be to stop undercutting by the illicit market and to allow legitimate arms companies to continue to offer a competitive advantage.

I make no pretence that my primary concern is the bottom-line costs of arms manufacturers. My concern is the cost to people affected by illicit arms, the cost to economic and social development in poor countries and the costs of maintaining national defences in developed countries against international terrorists, who use many of the same supply chains.

I am proud to be part of a Government who have placed an unprecedented emphasis on international development. They have not only increased spending on international development, but have dramatically raised the prominence of development issues at the international level through debt relief, the millennium

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goals and a radical agenda for stimulating growth and development in the poorest countries. This Government understand the humanitarian imperative. It is, therefore, all the more difficult to understand why they have so far failed to address the humanitarian imperative that is the need for a binding international treaty on arms transfers.

I ask the Minister three questions. First, will he meet me and representatives from Oxfam, Amnesty International and Save our World to discuss how the UK may contribute to a treaty along the lines of the Ottawa convention? Secondly, will the Minister commission a review to assess any problems that might exist in relation to the implementation of such a treaty into UK law? Thirdly, will he agree to end his speech 30 seconds before you call order, Sir Nicholas, so that we might spare 30 seconds to reflect in silence on the 30 people who will have died since the start of our debate because of the small arms that have taken their lives?

4.21 pm

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) has spoken for 20 minutes, and although it would be right and proper to give him those 30 seconds, it would prevent me from dealing with many of the points that he has raised. Those points are important and therefore, if he will forgive me, and with the greatest respect for those losing their lives—half a million a year—I shall try to deal with some of his points so that we can make some progress.

I welcome the debate. The issues that my hon. Friend raises are important. As there is little time to discuss them, I shall do my best to respond to as many of his points as I can, and set out the Government's concern about the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. My hon. Friend claimed that Governments are doing nothing, but as far as this Government are concerned, we have acted, and done rather a lot.

We have an export control system that is responsible, transparent and accountable. In 1997, we established the first UK criteria on arms exports, which prohibit any exports of arms where there is a clear risk of their use for either internal repression or external aggression. The Quadripartite Committee of this Parliament has often praised the workings of the Government's export control system and its openness.

However, my hon. Friend is right to the extent that it is not enough for us alone to follow a responsible arms export policy. The British Government gained agreement for a European Union code of conduct during our EU presidency in 1998. That was a significant achievement. We regularly encourage other countries to adopt stricter arms export policies in the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the EU, NATO and bilaterally. We consider that important, and it is certainly worthwhile work. For that reason, I strongly welcome the debate that the arms trade treaty proposal has fostered.

It is clear from the number of letters received by the Government that the issue of stopping irresponsible arms transfers is one that the British people take very

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seriously. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government take those concerns very seriously, too. The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have already met representatives of a number of the non-governmental organisations that have been the main advocates of this treaty, to discuss its contents. In terms of the point that my hon. Friend raised, therefore, meetings have already taken place. If he wishes to organise a further meeting, we shall be very happy to talk with him and with some of the other non-governmental organisations.

We are also looking at the detail of the treaty and examining the way in which it would impact on arms sales. On the day that non-governmental organisations launched their campaign in support of the treaty, the Government praised it as an important contribution to the international debate on arms export control issues. I stand by that today. It has stimulated debate and pushed the agenda forward, and it is very strongly to be welcomed.

The Government judges initiatives in this area by the real world impact that they will have. Will the initiatives deliver as effectively as the NGOs say? In other words, will they change the practices of those countries—Ukraine and Belarus come to mind, but are by no means alone—whose export control standards are weak? Clearly, in order to be effective, any international instrument in this area would have to enjoy the support of such countries, and indeed of all major arms-exporting countries. It is no use merely trying to raise still further the standards of countries whose standards are already high. That would not address the problem that my hon. Friend has identified.

We are studying carefully the detail of the arms trade treaty and looking at the problems that it poses, and we hope to work through those issues with NGOs as they refine their wishes. We will take into account the results of the consultations that they are undertaking at the moment. Much of the treaty's substance is along similar lines to the EU code of conduct on arms exports. Consequently, the idea itself is not contentious for us, but there are some proposals that break new ground. Government experts are in dialogue with the representatives of the sponsoring NGOs better to understand the effect of those points.

That does not detract from the general welcome we have given to the draft treaty. What we need now, if it is to have some real impact, is to gather support from a wider range of countries, not just those, such as the UK, that are already seen as practising responsible policies. That will require a wide-ranging effort, not just sponsorship by a few western Governments. There are clear elements in common between the initiatives for an arms trade treaty and the work that we have undertaken to improve global export controls on small arms. I agree with my hon. Friend that the statistics are shocking: around 500,000 deaths a year result from the misuse of weapons. The easy availability of small arms is a major source of insecurity and poverty in many regions of the world today. I strongly commend the NGOs that support the arms trade treaty for their work to highlight the problem.

Controlling the supply of weapons is not straightforward. An emotive response does not get the job done. Arms have legitimate uses, and production or sales cannot therefore be banned outright. The problem is exacerbated because production and manufacture are

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highly decentralised. Strengthening national, regional and international export controls is essential to stemming the flow of arms from legal transfers to illegal possession and subsequent misuse.

The UK works hard to raise global awareness of the need to improve controls on small arms transfers, and to incorporate them into wider export controls. We lead in the global effort to develop common international standards on small arms exports. As a Minister who was closely involved in developing the controls, I can say that a key UK achievement in 2002 was securing the adoption of the best practice guidelines for export of small arms and light weapons in the Wassenaar arrangement, which is a group of 33 of the world's major arms exporters.

We have also fully supported the UN programme of action on small arms and light weapons. Between 2002 and 2004, we will make available more than £20 million to control and reduce the supply, demand and

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availability of such weapons. That funding supports projects that assist UN agencies, regional organisations, Governments and NGOs. We stay in close contact with interested NGOs on our work on small arms.

We are working practically and seriously to address the sorts of problems that my hon. Friend has rightly raised. The UK fully supports the call to highlight the need for co-ordinated and comprehensive approaches to arms exports and, in particular, small arms controls. I am confident that the outline that I have given shows that we are prepared to work with NGOs and to ensure that the efforts needed to reduce the threat that small arms pose to far too many people in this world are undertaken. The death of 500,000 people each year from small arms is a toll that can be significantly reduced. It requires international effort, and we are prepared to undertake it.

Question put and agreed to.

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