Belfast Telegraph

UK must stick to its guns in debate over weapons

The crisis in Syria makes the Government's support for the arms trade treaty all the more critical, says Patrick Corrigan

The news from Homs is bad. Hundreds killed in the last few days in that Syrian city alone. Government forces have used heavy weaponry, artillery and tanks to fire indiscriminately at civilian areas.

More than 7,000 people are now estimated to have been killed in attempts to put down the uprising, which kicked off last March.

The rebellion is part of the Arab Spring which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling autocratic rulers and giving hope that democracy could blossom.

So it is profoundly depressing to learn that Northern Ireland-manufactured and exported military equipment is being used to against those who have risen up against the rule of President Bashir al-Assad.

Shorland armoured cars - sold by Shorts Bros to the Assad regime in the 1980s - can be seen patrolling the streets of Homs, bristling with heavy automatic weapons.

Anti-government activists have posted videos and photographs online showing the Northern Ireland-exported vehicles being used by Syrian army and police to clear the streets of Homs and other towns across the country.

It's not just in Syria that state violence - and Western-supplied weaponry - has been used to suppress dissent.

Over the last year, Amnesty has documented how riot police and internal security forces in Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen used firearms, shotguns, live ammunition, tear gas, water cannon and armoured vehicles to suppress protesters.

And, of course in Libya, Gaddafi's forces launched rockets, mortars and fired artillery into densely-populated civilian areas. Most of this weaponry was sold and supplied by European countries, Russia and the USA.

Although some states took steps to suspend arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen, a UN Security Council arms embargo was imposed on Libya and the EU imposed an embargo on Syria, Amnesty believes that many of the arms exports licensed and delivered should not have been authorised in the first place, as before 2011 there was still plenty of evidence of the risk that those governments would use those arms to commit human rights violations.

But how can we balance the obvious benefits to our own economy that this sector can bring with a desire not to see such trade fuel overseas conflicts?

Obviously, nothing can be done about decades-old export deals like the one supplying armoured cars to Syria. But we can do something about future deals to make sure that arms exports aren't used for the sort of internal repression we are now witnessing in Syria.

One answer, Amnesty feels, is by the international community agreeing to a global arms trade treaty. This would outlaw the sale of arms and other military equipment to countries where they are likely to be used for abuses and external aggression, rather than for legitimate policing or defence.

This July, world leaders will meet in New York to draw up an historic document: the first ever international arms trade treaty. Officials from some influential countries have indicated that they will push to water down proposals currently tabled.

The UK has championed the arms trade treaty on the world stage for a number of years. However, recently it has shown signs of wavering. Unless we want to see more cities like Homs crushed by brute force, and the defeat of future Arab Springs, then the Government must not falter now.

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