Jack Straw’s global gun law

Why should we trust the UK foreign secretary to decide which countries can and cannot be trusted with arms sales?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Should the international arms market be open to ‘responsible’ buyers only? UK foreign secretary Jack Straw apparently thinks so, and has proposed a global treaty for small arms sales to match those for nuclear and biological weapons.

Straw argued for ‘certain core principles which make clear when exports would be unacceptable’, such as ‘whether exports may be used to abuse human rights or breach international law, whether they may fuel internal or regional conflict or tension, and the risk of their being diverted to terrorists or other undesirable end-users’ (1). News reports showed images of conflict-ridden African countries, with young men toting their AK-47s wildly in the streets. Others listed all the regimes they thought shouldn’t be able to buy arms on the international market, from Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe, Israel to Indonesia.

There is a hidden assumption here: that guns are just about okay for us, but we wouldn’t want the wrong kind of people getting hold of them. A moral distinction is drawn between those who use weapons for sensible ends, and those who can’t be trusted. Oxfam’s conflict campaign manager Simon Gray made this explicit, saying: ‘an international consensus is vital to keep weapons out of the wrong hands and protect people from armed violence.’ (2) Amnesty International director Kate Allen argued that weapons shouldn’t be sold to people who ‘persecute, torture and massacre’.

But every gun is bad for those on the receiving end; no country uses their machine guns for helping old women across the road. Who is to say which killing is an abuse of human rights or breach of international law, and which is in defence of them? This treaty would effectively allow the West to judge the rest of the world, deciding which states and which groups should have a right to bear arms.

Weapons themselves are seen as the cause of conflict in the developing world. Straw argued that: ‘Relatively “cheap and simple” conventional weapons…account for an enormous amount of avoidable human misery across the world, and hit the poorest and most vulnerable worst of all.’ (3) Observers say that developing nations are bringing problems upon themselves, by spending money on arms rather than food and education. Yet conflicts happen for a reason – because a regime is unpopular, because state authority is weak, or because of disputes over resources. The fact that a shaky African state such as the Democratic Republic of Congo has 800,000 illegal guns doesn’t mean that if the West were to tighten arms sales the conflict would cease. People of the developing world are treated as children, with the idea that so long as dangerous implements are kept out of their reach, they won’t cause any trouble.

Controls on arms sales aren’t new. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968 under the shadow of the Cold War, confined nuclear weapons technology to the USA, the USSR, the UK, France and China. Other states have to declare all their nuclear facilities and open them up for inspections. The realpolitik behind this was obvious – nuclear weapons were kept in only a few hands, in order to preserve the status quo. In those states where nuclear weapons did proliferate, such as Pakistan and India, this was because of the role that they played on different sides of the Cold War.

Similarly, the West has always armed its friends, and tried to cut off arms from its foes. In terms of human rights, there was generally little to choose between those who were judged to be ‘our bastard’ and ‘their bastard’. These disparities continue. So at the same time that Jack Straw is proposing tighter regulations on international arms control, the EU is planning to lift the embargo on arms to China that was imposed after the regime’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As the world’s fastest growing economy, China is a global player that simply can’t be kept behind an arms curtain. And given that arms is one of Britain’s few remaining industries (the UK supplies 20 per cent of the world market), Chinese trade is not something the government can sniff at.

But Straw’s focus on small arms suggest that this isn’t just about realpolitik. Instead it’s about attempting to strike a moral pose, saving the world’s poor from the tyrannical dictators/vicious gunmen that are threatening them. It’s about presenting Western leaders as the kind of people who know how to govern well and look after people. Indeed, the UK government now considers a state’s record on ‘sustainable development’ before selling arms to it – this policy came out of the row over Tanzania’s air traffic control system, when the Department for International Development (DFID) tried to block the export on the basis that the Tanzanian government should be doing something better with its money.

Weapons control systems are also more pre-emptive today. After all, Iraq was attacked for chemical and biological weapons that existed only in the fevered imaginations of the US coalition, rather than for a real strategic threat. And a similar paranoia seems to be driving the approach towards Iran, with US president George W Bush proposing that states shouldn’t be able even to produce their own nuclear material, lest they turn it into something nasty (4).

In the past, political allegiances within the West would have shielded these double standards from view; today, at a time when the West finds it hard to draw moral lines, Straw’s proposed treaty is see-through. When much of the UK believes that the war on Iraq contravened international law, and when UK and US soldiers are prosecuted for killings they carried out with government-issued weapons, Straw can hardly hold standards over the rest of the world. And when everybody thinks that politicians are only in it for the money, it is difficult for them to strike grand moral poses. On Newsnight’s report on the issue, Jeremy Paxman whipped out the ‘what about China?’ line, and Jack Straw had to shuffle his feet.

But if arms treaties are more see-through now, this is due more to cynicism than criticism. Instead of being viewed as our bastard and their bastard, they are all just seen as bastards. And they are all too irresponsible to have guns – Bush and Blair included.

It is the moral uncertainty hanging over the West that drives Straw to lay down the line on arms sales. The only way in which Britain can assert its authority today is by contrasting itself to ‘uncivilised’ others. But it is this same moral uncertainty that makes the line so much more difficult to hold.

(1) Straw outlines treaty to regulate arms trade, Guardian, 15 March 2005

(2) UK: Campaigners welcome Straw commitment on Arms Trade Treaty and urge swift action Amnesty International, Amnesty International

(3) Straw outlines treaty to regulate arms trade, Guardian, 15 March 2005

(4) ‘Bush seeks to ban some nations from all nuclear technology’, New York Times, 15 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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