In New York the UK’s ambassador is currently lobbying for a robust arms trade treaty. At the same time, in Brussels, the UK’s ambassador is advocating for lifting the EU arms embargo for Syria. This gap between what the British government says and what it does, is typical of a coalition government whose standards on arms control and civilian protection have been consistently inconsistent.
An arms trade treaty and Syria
On 19 March in the final days of negotiations for a global arms trade treaty at the United Nations, the UK’s Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt called for a treaty with strong provisions. These provisions were aimed at protecting civilians from the illicit and unregulated trade in arms. “We have a duty to prevent conflict and protect innocent civilians” Burt said. Foreign Secretary William Hague argued that a global treaty “that denies rogue states illegal arms will make us all secure […] will help prevent instability and stop arms reaching terrorists.”
But only three days later William Hague then attempted to persuade the European Union to lift its arms embargo in order to step up assistance to Syrian opposition forces. Mr Hague said that there was a “very strong case” for amending the ban on exports of weapons.
The logic of pouring weapons into a conflict in order to better protect civilians is questionable. To do so in a situation where human rights and international humanitarian law violations have been committed by both sides is irresponsible and at odds with the UK’s vision of making “us all secure”. In Syria, some groups fighting against government forces have links to jihadist militants including al Qaeda. Given this, such a policy seems to contradict the UK’s commitment to preventing terrorists getting their hands on weapons.
AOAV’s CEO Steve Smith said: “It seems quite bizarre that the UK should be supporting the implementation of an Arms Trade Treaty at the UN in New York, which is critically concerned with the humanitarian impact of arms transfers, whilst at the same time lobbying to arm groups in Syria. Any notion that such arms would remain within the hands of moderate groups is surely either extremely naïve or sheer fantasy? Such thinking allowed the US to arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan with Stinger surface-to-air missiles, for use against the Soviets, in the 1980s. Many of these remain unaccounted for, despite an American buy-back programme to keep them out of Taliban hands.”
As Burt acknowledges, the UN arms trade treaty hinges on its implementation by states. The UK, by simultaneously seeking to get others to sign up to a treaty whilst also seeking to act against its spirit, is sending out the wrong message.
Explosive weapons in populated areas
Much of the worst violence in Syria has involved the use of explosive weapons like mortars, tanks, and air-dropped bombs in densely populated residential areas. In 2012, AOAV recorded that over eight thousand civilians had been reported killed and injured by explosive weapons in Syria. This harm was significantly magnified when these weapons were used in populated areas. There 91% of casualties were civilians.
Many of these attacks were rightly denounced by the British government. Following the heavy bombardment of Homs on 3 February last year, when around 200 people were killed, Hague said that the UK Government “condemn[s] unequivocally the use of tanks, mortars and artillery in civilian areas.” And, after Assad’s regime used ballistic missiles the British Foreign Office condemned “this in the strongest possible terms. It demonstrates the appalling brutality of the regime and its desperation to go to any lengths to deny his people their legitimate aspiration.”
Yet, despite recognising the severe threat the use of explosive weapons in populated areas poses to civilians, the UK government has failed to translate this knowledge into efforts to address this tactic more broadly.
Over the last three years 27 states have taken the opportunity provided by the Protection of Civilians debates in the United Nations Security Council to highlight the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in populated areas. The UK has failed to do this. Indeed, a freedom of information request for guidance sent to UK diplomats ahead of the last Protection of Civilians debate reveals there were clear instructions by the British government to avoid suggesting the effects of explosive weapons can be indiscriminate:
“When talking of air-delivery of weapons or heavy artillery in populated areas care should be taken not to imply that the air-delivery of weapons or the use of heavy artillery, or of any other weapons, projectiles or munitions, is less accurate or less capable of being carried out discriminately than all other means. We should avoid language which implies a weapon is inherently indiscriminate.”
Clearly the UK’s own use of explosive weapons in Afghanistan and Libya has made it cautious in being seen to question it, despite feeling free to condemn their use in Syria.
Chemical and nuclear weapons
Chemical weapon use in Syria has been identified as a red line by both the US and the UK. In August last year, following a phone call between Barack Obama and David Cameron, “both agreed that the use – or threat – of chemical weapons was completely unacceptable and would force them to revisit their approach so far.”
The UK, along with 188 other countries, is a state-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention which outlaws chemical weapons and requires their destruction within a specified time period.
However, the UK has failed to take part in discussions for a treaty which would ban another weapon of mass destruction due to its humanitarian impact. In March the UK snubbed a meeting on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons attended by 127 states claiming that it would “divert discussions and focus” away from other forums. Failing to engage with this initiative while at the same time working renew the Trident ballistic missile system undermines Mr Burt’s claim that he is committed to a world free of nuclear weapons.
The UK is rightly concerned by any suggestion that horrific chemical weapons could be used in Syria. This is the right position to take. And as such, they should apply this concern to the only weapon of mass destruction which does not have an international prohibition and engage in discussions to address their unspeakable humanitarian impact.
As the coalition government approaches its third anniversary its report card for matching strong rhetoric on arms control and civilian protection in Syria with practical action and consistency would read ‘must try harder’. At the moment it risks sliding towards hypocrisy.
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