Profits from arms deals tend to trump human rights. The UN Security Council, whose five veto-wielding permanent members count among the world’s biggest arms dealers, is falling down on its 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 last week. It deplores an “endemic failure of leadership” and says last year — 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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the US, 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 in Syria now stands at about 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 deeds have a chance to redeem themselves at a UN conference in 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 US President Barack Obama timed to coincide with the Amnesty International report, representatives of 51 non-governmental organizations 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.
BANANAS VS BOMBS
According to arms control experts, there are more rules and regulations governing the trade in bananas than in the trade in 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. According to the relief organization Oxfam, which has taken a prominent role in advocating for the ATT, countries under arms embargoes imported more than US$2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition since the year 2000. Case in point: Darfur. Sudan has been under an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in 2004, but weapons from Belarus, China and Russia continue to flow despite reports of 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 US Department of State said it would end a freeze on military sales to the state — imposed in September last year in response to a violent crackdown on dissidents — because of “a determination that it is in the US 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 US Fifth Fleet, there to guard shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-borne oil.