Ollie Makepeace writes from Beirut: In New York, the United Nations General Assembly has passed by majority vote a first-time treaty controlling, supposedly, the conventional arms trade. The document, when ratified, is supposed to ban states from exporting weapons in violation of arms embargoes or weapons that could easily be used for conducting genocide or committing war crimes and acts of terrorism.
The British have been at the forefront in getting this treaty through the UN. They should be congratulated for throwing their diplomatic and moral weight against the objections of Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and, as could be imagined in present circumstances, Syria.
Well done, you Brits!
But if the Brits were publicly saying weapons should not be sold to that list of people who could break every UN principle imagined, how come the same moralistic United Kingdom is demanding a ban on such weapons sales but at the same time pushing for arms to be sent to the Syrian rebels, who are easily identified as a bunch of bloodthirsty war criminals by any definition? How come the Brits are telling everyone to sign the treaty before taking it back to their respective legislations for ratification and at the same time twist diplomatic arms to get the EU to lift its arms embargoes to Syrian rebels? The British argue that giving arms to the rebels is OK because they are freedom fighters. Is there anyone outside the British Foreign Office and the Qatari and Saudi Foreign Ministries who believes that?
The fact that the rebels don’t have to pay does not mean there isn’t a sale in it. This is diplomatic semantics. So what’s behind it?
First up is the fact that politicians may believe in big moral ideals but politics is about staying in power and getting on the right side of countries that you as a government or your commercial organisations value. That’s the case with the UK. It has binned moral perceptions to get on the right side of big buck defence ordering Saudi Arabia, which wants British support for arming the rebels. No one who has been briefed properly could begin to believe that the UK and others are supporting the good guys. You would also have thought the experience in supporting the rebels in Libya would have taught them something. It did of course. It taught the French and British that it’s possible to do things that once done other governments and the general and voting public will overlook or miss.
This new treaty is easy to dismiss as a diplomatic sham. It does not cover arms to rebels anywhere in the world. It does not curb arms exporters, only arms importers. It does not cover third party transfers. It does not get the support of the biggest arms suppliers to all the bad guys – China and Russia.
The whole thing is a sham. ‘But it’s a start,’ say the British and a lot of other people too. They say this is the first treaty. Of course it is. We may get another one in 20 years or so. By that time who knows how many more people will be dead because of the cynical political ambitions at the UN from dips and pols who simply wanted a treaty, whatever its wording and whatever its true value. This one has blood on it.