A tank at the 2009 DSEi arms fair A tank at the 2009 DSEi arms fair (© Flickr/Campaign Against Arms Trade)

Arms shipments that most of the world think outrageous are threatening peace
There’s been precious little good news on Syria this year. But one exception was when the Alaed, a Russian cargo ship, scuttled back to port last week when the world found out that it was apparently carrying attack helicopters for President Assad.

Turned back by London insurers withdrawing its cover, it would have been illegal to sail on. And so, somewhere off Scotland’s Western Isles, it headed home to Russia.

Since then, Russian media reports suggest that it may sail for Syria again. Let’s hope not. But whatever happens, what should we take from this bizarre incident?

At least two things. First: that there are opportunities to prevent conflict in surprising places – in London insurers, and beyond the Outer Hebrides. And second: that arms shipments that most of the world think outrageous are threatening peace – and local peacebuilders – every day.

What the London insurers did to the Alaed was one small step to prevent that. But on Monday 2 July the world has the chance to take a very big step to prevent the arms trade overwhelming local efforts for peace.

Or more accurately, there’s that chance at a UN conference in New York that runs from 2 to 27 July – by when the world’s governments will have agreed the first ever international Arms Trade Treaty.

Or at least that’s the plan.

It’s a plan more than ten years in fruition. A global treaty to control the arms trade was originally the vision of the Noble peace laureates whose latest meeting was the topic of a recent post on this site. They saw that all the efforts to build peace would be incomplete if nothing was done to stop irresponsible arms dealers fuelling conflicts. Since 2003, their call has been taken up by dozens of civil society organisations around the world, local peacebuilders, human rights activists and others, united in the Control Arms campaign with groups like Amnesty and Oxfam.

And now, after years of campaigning, and negotiations at the UN that have often seemed endless, the time to actually agree the Treaty has actually come.

Will the conference succeed?

Every government must hold out for a tough treaty
By 27 July, the opening day of the London Olympics, will the world have really agreed to curb arms shipments that fuel conflict, violate human rights and undermine development? (Because according to Oxfam’s research, conflict costs Africa $18 billion a year.)

Many governments, including the UK, will fly to New York genuinely wanting a tough Treaty to do so. A bunch of others will not, and spend the next four weeks lobbying for one loophole after another that would make the treaty useless – pious words that would do nothing for peace. India, Indonesia and Egypt want to exclude all the parts and components that make up modern weapons. And unlikely bedfellows like Iran and the US want a treaty that might mention human rights, but do nothing to oblige governments to stop arms deals that violate them.

And perhaps the biggest challenge is another one: that yet other governments would rather have some treaty, even a weak one, rather than admit their diplomacy hasn’t worked.

That would be a tragic mistake. It would effectively allow today’s irresponsible arms deals to go on.

Every government must instead hold out for a tough treaty. Not a weak one that would do nothing to stop another country sending a shipfull of attack helicopters to Syria.

After all, as the strange story of the Alaed may sadly suggest – if it does head back to Syria – the world can’t really rely on London insurers to prevent conflict.