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Australia and other arms rogues


'Arms' by Chris JohnstonThe 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 opponents, 'took a principled stand throughout these negotiations that international trade in conventional arms is a legitimate enterprise that is and should remain regulated by the individual nations themselves, and we continue to believe that any Arms Trade Treaty should require states to develop their own national regulations and controls and strengthen the rule of law regarding arms sales.'

The press statement by the US State Department articulates a long-standing principle: regulation of such matters is an internal matter, the prerogative of individual states to develop appropriate frameworks of laws that net undesirable 'dealers'. There are regimes that deserve lethal weapons to use appropriately, and there are those that should be kept off the lists. Weapons should not be 'transferred to people who would abuse them'.

The difficulty is that who is or is not a desirable dealer is often an open question. The answer, sadly, tends to lie in strategic preferences — yesterday, it was Saddam Hussein; today, it might be the Syrian regime.

That one is dealing in an industry of death to begin with suggests a broader ethical problem that is simply not being asked. Within the rhetoric of arms control is a purported legitimacy of the trade to begin with. Arms will be made and arms will be purchased.

More to the point — as happened notably in South Africa when the country elected Nelson Mandela in 1994 — those in the arms industry will hoist themselves upon institutions in the name of some fictitious necessity.

Australia, sadly, adds to that contradiction. On one hand, activists protested outside the US Consulate in Sydney pressuring Washington to change their tune on the treaty. Senator Bob Carr took a strong stance favouring the ATT: 'We're seeking a comprehensive agreement on arms control — enforceable through public reporting to the UN — and aimed at reducing the continued flow of conventional weapons to rogue groups and terrorists.'

What the Senator failed to mention is that Australia has its own arms producers, it own exporters, who deal heavily in the death industry. Late last month, voluntary administrators were called in to sort out the $115 million in losses incurred by the Brisbane weapons maker Metal Storm.

Australian 'know-how' here, under the stewardship of CEO Lee Finnear, has been put to particularly sinister use — the creation, among other things, of an electronic gun capable of firing a million bullets a minute. Fine, presumably, if the recipient of such weapons is not 'rogue'.

Even the language of the Secretary General is disconcerting. There are no prospects for abolishing such an illicit trade — we can only ever hope to keep it above board, the subject of regulations and legal fiat.

A group of over 90 states claimed in a collective statement that, while disappointed, they were 'not discouraged'. But it is axiomatic that international trade will have, as a chief component, the shipment and transport of arms. Till that connection is abolished, talk about treaties of regulation seem not merely futile but disingenuous.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, arms trade, Geneva Protocol



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Existing comments

I really did enjoy this article, even though the subject matter is not so enjoyable. This all speaks of power and inevitably'money' How co we cope with money? Difficult not to want more!We are all part of the evils of the world, perhaps mainly by our complancy. Banning undesirable and dangerous elements in our world, may not be the answer, as has been proved by history. To educate our young, to abhor violence of any sort, seems to be essential, giving them stronger convictions, than ruthless greedy adults. I think we need an enormous movement of dedicated young, and not so young, people who will stand up to the evil of manufacturing weapons that kill. One day even Governments may lift their sights above their own self interests, and campaign for peace... a peace where weapons may play a more insignificant role in our society.

Bernie Introna | 06 August 2012  

Judging from the one comment here - compared to up to 100 comments after other ES articles, it seems Catholics in Australia get more fired up about travesties of justice like same-sex marriage than they do about the slaughter of people in other countries using Australian finances.

AURELIUS | 08 August 2012  

Just came across these words by Martin Luther King from a sermon in 1964:"What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present-day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent.During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war."

Cameron Gaffney | 12 August 2012  

Action to ban bombs containing depleted uranium must be taken. Depleted uranium can cause lymphoma, leukemia and birth defects to those who come into contact with it. My husband, Percy ,went as an aid worker to Kosovo in 1999 , came into contact with depleted uranium and died of lymphoma in 2006. All bombs are bad but these are among the worst.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 21 August 2012  

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