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Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger

Posted: September 15, 2006 03:02 PM

The UN Has a Real Chance to Stop the Killing


As the UN General Assembly opens this week, it has a unique opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of people all over the world. The opportunity is a draft resolution for an international Arms Trade Treaty that would place tough controls on arms sales, put forward by the UK, Finland, Japan Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, and Kenya. If this resolution is approved it will help to stop human rights abuses, limit the threat of terrorism, and reduce suffering for millions of people. Regrettably, there is also a real chance that some countries will block progress.

The Arms Trade Treaty would make it illegal to sell weapons to human rights abusers. It would make it harder for weapons to end up in the hands of criminals and terrorists. And it would help regulate a trade that is spiralling out of control - $900 billion spent on defence versus only $60 billion on aid - and fuels unimaginable human suffering. Every day, over 1,000 people lose their lives through armed violence.

We have recently seen the appalling consequences of the conflict in Lebanon: the Israeli army flattening civilian targets with thousands of pounds precision-guided "bunker-buster bombs" killing 1,393 people, leaving 5,350 injured and forcing 1,150,000 to flee their homes, 215,413 are still homeless. Hezbollah rockets fired into civilian areas in northern Israel killing 43 people and forcing ten of thousands to leave. Both are War Crimes. And both are largely perpetrated with weapons that have been imported from other countries.

Israel's military hardware including its deadly cluster bombs and lethal precision-guided "bunker buster" 5,000lb GBU-28 " a special weapon developed for penetrating hardened command centers located deep underground" is overwhelmingly American-made, with hi-tech British components used in the Apache helicopters that have fired rockets at cars on crowded streets, and the F-16s and F-15 that devastated southern Lebanon. Neither is Hezbollah manufacturing the Katyushas or longer-range "Khaibar-1" missiles, they used to fire indiscriminately into Israeli towns.

Tens of thousands of unexploded cluster munitions have created de facto minefields in Lebanon's streets, fields and playgrounds. According to a report from the United Nations 90 percent of Israeli cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict when a ceasefire was in sight. The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center has so far identified more than 400 bomb strike areas that are contaminated with as many as 100,000 unexploded bomblets. Six-year-old 'Abbas Yusef Shibli, picked up a cluster munition while playing with friends because it looked "like a perfume bottle." When it exploded in his hand, Abbas suffered a ruptured colon, ruptured gall bladder, perforated lung, and torn medial nerve and has so far undergone two blood transfusions.

I have seen for myself the horrific effects of arms proliferation in countries all over the world. From Nicaragua, my birthplace, still awash with weapons left over from a bloody conflict fuelled by the US arming the Contras, the country had a toll of more than 40,000 civilian killed. Nicaragua has never completely recovered from the war. It is now one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere. For decades, the US government provided millions of dollars in military aid to military dictatorship and oppressive governments in Latin America, many of those countries now have appallingly high levels of armed violence. As a human rights campaigner, I have campaigned on behalf of countless victims of conflicts throughout the world from Latin America, to the Balkans to the Middle East, I can attest to the devastating effect that armed conflicts have on the civilian population particularly on women and children.

Some nations will try to block the treaty's progress; however, their arguments are fundamentally flawed. An Arms Trade Treaty would not undermine states' sovereignty or their ability to act lawfully to defend themselves. It would not hamper legitimate law enforcement to provide security for their citizens. Arms importers and exporters would have a clear set of rules to abide by with every arms transfer, rather than the current hotch-potch of uneven and conflicting regulation that fails to control the trade today.

What the treaty would do is promote security - real security. It would prevent armed groups and militia, which pay no heed to international law, from acquiring weapons that cause carnage and misery. An Amnesty International report last year detailed shipments of over 240 tonnes of weapons, from Eastern Europe to governments in Africa's war-torn Great Lakes region, including millions of rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, Amnesty traced the supply of weapons and ammunition to the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and their subsequent distribution to armed groups and militia in the eastern DRC that have been involved in massacres, mutilation and mass rapes of civilians.

Given some governments' obsession with the "War on Terror" and the 'security agenda', what on earth is holding them back? The only people who benefit from an unregulated arms trade are the bad guys - repressive governments who terrorise their own people, armed groups looking for RPGs and warlords who put AK47s in the hands of children. And of course, the people who sell them the hardware: the pilot who runs guns into Central Africa, and the broker who takes a fat commission and never even sees the damage caused by the goods on delivery.

There has been a positive response from many countries to calls for an Arms Trade Treaty. Over 50 states have voiced their support - but to make it happen we need a majority of 192 member state to support the treaty. Yesterday Britain hosted a meeting of world diplomats to discuss the need for tougher arms controls.

I urge people throughout the world to take this message directly to those states that are holding back progress, to support tougher arms controls. Please go to www.amnesty.org.uk/arms and write to these governments, calling on them to take real, concrete action to make your communities safer by supporting the Arms Trade Treaty.

This month the international community and the UN has an opportunity to make a real difference to people's lives. It can make people safer. For once it can act pre-emptively to prevent the slaughter rather than be forced to mop up the bloodshed afterwards. It is an opportunity that the UN must seize.