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
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
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.