India lives in a neighbourhood with porous borders, conflicts and regimes ranging from semi-dictatorial to outright autocratic. While the illicit weapons trade along its borders has given India many problems, violent insurrection in its neighbourhood has also given it much cause for worry. While the pre-eminent fear is of a nuclear conflict, most of the damage is being carried out by conventional weapons. The ongoing final negotiations for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in the United Nations is an excellent opportunity for India to press its concerns of regulating the weapons trade to improve security and prevent large-scale humanitarian tragedies.
On an average one person dies every minute as a result of armed violence, with thousands more abused and injured every day. The poorly regulated transfer of arms ensures they keep reaching destinations where they are most likely to be used against vulnerable communities. Amnesty International is urging those taking part in the 9-day ATT negotiations to put human rights considerations ahead of profit margins and produce a bullet-proof ATT.
The ATT negotiations are an acid test for political leaders to face up to the reality and agree on rules leading to the end of irresponsible arms transfers across borders that fuel grave abuses of human rights. More than 43 million people worldwide were displaced at the end of 2010 as a result of armed conflict and persecution. Why should millions more be killed and lives devastated before leaders wake up and take decisive action to properly control international arms transfers?
While India is not a big arms exporter, it would surprise many to realise that India delivered to Syria between 2005 and 2009 $1.13 million worth of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles. The Syrian army has used tanks to shell residential areas in the ongoing conflict. As evidence continues to grow of crimes against humanity, war crimes and other grave violations of human rights committed by Syrian forces, can the Indian authorities be confident that arms supplied by them were not used in any of these atrocities?
India has in the past acted to protect human rights and civilian lives. In 2005, when former Nepal king Gyanendra seized power India stopped sale of all military hardware to the Nepal Army as it was concerned about its purported use. This was a great show of intent as India acted to protect human rights and the threat to civil liberties in Nepal.
The Indian delegation to New York should call upon such inspirational decisions to work with the P5 and other major weapons suppliers to push through a ‘Golden Rule’ in the ATT that no arms transfers can be approved if there is a substantial risk that the arms will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law. Being an increasingly important actor, India should also work with BRICS and other key G20 players to push through the strongest possible treaty. As the world’s top arms importer India is in a position to pitch for a strong treaty and it is bound to be heard by the major players.
Among the challenges to getting an effective ATT is the simple fact that the US, Russia, China, Britain and France are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. As such they have the task to maintain international peace and security. Yet these five governments account for over half of the $100 billion annual trade in conventional weapons.
Campaigners are advocating that munitions, ammunition and parts and components, and all activities of the international trade in conventional arms are fully controlled by the proposed treaty and that the ATT must include strong implementation mechanisms and comprehensive and regular public reporting by all States so as to enable scrutiny as to whether their government is acting responsibly on the international arms trade.
Amnesty International is demanding a treaty that covers all aspects of the international arms trade, including gifts, arms brokering, transporting and financing; and that has mechanisms to prevent the diversion of arms transfers to unauthorised end users, public annual reporting and criminalisation of illicit trafficking.
The ATT is not a panacea, but its achievement will be an essential part of the solution.
Raghu Menon is the Advocacy Coordinator for Amnesty International in India
The views expressed by the author are personal