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Australia and other arms rogues

  • 06 August 2012

The history of arms control is sketchy, marked by various triumphs and sprinkled with spectacular failures.

The first international gathering to address arms control as a serious issue was the Hague Convention of 1899. International lawyers are particularly keen to point out the strides made at this conference, not least of all the banning of asphyxiating gases and the use of dumdum bullets.

Sadly, none of these injunctions were to hold when World War I broke out in 1914.

Arms control, in truth, brings out the greatest vicissitudes of international diplomacy. A ban tends to be followed by a qualification. An injunction tends to keep company with a violation.

The Geneva Protocol of 1925, still current with 130 parties, targeted poisonous gases and bacteriological weapons in international conflicts with one notable caveat: civil and internal wars were exempt, allowing colonial powers to experiment on subject peoples in the name of police actions.

Nation states — notably the ones most keen on touting the rhetoric of anti-aggression — tend to be the great stonewallers when it comes to negotiating treaties on the subject. The Cold War was typified by a power arrangement that extolled the slogans of world peace even as nuclear weapons were being stockpiled in the name of Mutually Assured Destruction. The arms control advocates of one day were the appeasers of the next.

In the arms control industry, image is everything.

For the past month, the United Nations has been attempting to come to some sort of agreement over a potential treaty controlling the flow of illicit conventional weapons. The treaty was intended to incorporate firmly established rules of international human rights and humanitarian law. This would have been called the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), but the document has failed to materialise.

The failure is apparently one of timing — negotiations were, as the Control Arms coalition claimed, 'procedurally blocked by the United States, Russia, DPRK, Cuba and Venezuela who all asked for more time'.

'I am disappointed', stated the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, 'that the Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty concluded its four-week-long session without agreement on a treaty text that would have set common standards to regulate the international trade in conventional arms.'

The United States, one of the draft text's chief