"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
UK Spells Out Arms Pact

Wade Boese

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw set out guidelines March 15 for a global treaty on conventional arms sales that London plans to promote this year. The initiative comes at a time when the European Union is wrestling with whether to waive arms sales restrictions on China.

Speaking at a London event hosted by the nongovernmental organization Saferworld, Straw said that the international community has addressed biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons but has neglected conventional arms such as machine guns, tanks, and combat aircraft. He argued this “gap” must be filled because conventional arms “per item are plainly less lethal than a nuclear or chemical bomb, but which account today for far more misery and destruction across the world.”

London is not seeking to outlaw trade in conventional arms. Instead, the proposed treaty, which Straw first broached last September, would establish legally binding global standards for acceptable weapons exports. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Unacceptable arms deals would be those that might spark regional aggression or tension, end up in terrorist hands, or lead to human rights abuses, he explained. Criteria for judging sales should be derived from “certain basic standards of behavior and policy” enshrined in the UN Charter, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international law, Straw stated.

Governments subscribing to the treaty ideally would be obligated to impose criminal penalties on treaty violations by their citizens and companies, Straw said. He also maintained that the treaty’s effectiveness would rest on governments informing each other of their denials of potential exports. The 34 members of the voluntary Wassenaar Arrangement exchange information on their export denials of dual-use goods and technologies, which have both civilian and military applications, but they do not notify each other of their conventional arms export denials.

“Without enforceability mechanisms and information sharing, a treaty would risk being one simply on paper, not in fact,” Straw warned.

However, Straw tempered expectations for fast results, describing British efforts as the beginning of a “long process.”

The British arms trade treaty push coincides with a debate within the 25-member EU, which includes the United Kingdom, about lifting a 1989 arms embargo on China. (See ACT, March 2005.) Washington is adamantly opposed to the move, in part because it says China has not sufficiently improved its human rights record since Beijing’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors at Tiananmen Square, for which the embargo was originally imposed. The United States is also concerned about China’s use of European weapons and technology during a possible conflict with Taiwan, which might involve the United States.

Until recently, the EU appeared poised to scrap the embargo before June. (See ACT, January/February 2005.) Now, the move increasingly looks like it might be postponed because of a combination of U.S. pressure and China’s March 14 adoption of a law that authorizes the use of force against Taiwan, should it assert its independence. Although Beijing has repeatedly threatened such action against Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province, the anti-secession law’s passage has made some EU countries more uncomfortable with dropping the embargo. Straw said in a March 20 interview on the United Kingdom’s ITV that the new law has “created quite a difficult political environment.”

Previous talks to limit conventional arms trade have been frustrated by a general attitude among arms suppliers that other countries’ exports are the problem, not their own. Talks convened at Washington’s initiative in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to rein in the global arms trade broke up after the United States announced a sale of up to 150 combat aircraft to Taiwan, upsetting China. (See ACT, September 1992.)

In his speech, Straw said he did not “underestimate the difficulties” of achieving the desired treaty but insisted London would not be daunted.

The United Kingdom intends to raise the matter at the Group of Eight and in the EU this year when it holds the rotating presidency of both forums. London also plans to sponsor an experts meeting before this summer to begin discussing technical aspects of a future agreement, which Straw said should be negotiated by the United Nations.