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UNITED NATIONS – When weeklong negotiations on the control and regulation of the global arms trade were concluded last week, there was one missing link in the proposed treaty: riot control equipment used recently against peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Jordan.
The Arms Trade Treaty, which is expected to be finalized and signed next year, is either ambiguous or excludes “weapons of repression”, including rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas canisters, and high voltage electric-shock stun guns.
Described as combat protective equipment, these weapons are used not only by national armed forces but also by law enforcement agencies, including the police and prison services.
The London-based Amnesty International (AI) warned that if certain types of security and police equipment such as non-military firearms, including riot guns, crowd control vehicles, shotgun ammunition and tear gas, are not clearly covered by the ATT, “many governments will not prevent such arms being supplied and used for serious violations of human rights”.
Jeff Abramson, coordinator of the Control Arms Secretariat, a global civil society coalition, told IPS the last draft of the chairman’s text will need to be transformed into treaty language, but the precise process as to how that will happen is still unclear.
“There could be both improvements and backsliding as that happens,” he said.
Members of the Control Arms coalition will be working hard to see that improvements occur on what is generally a positive paper now, he added.
“Those areas for improvement include inclusion of police and crowd control equipment, the same items that are often used to commit the abuses for which a robust Arms Trade Treaty would work to stop,” noted Abramson.
Currently, there are no comprehensive or binding international rules or treaties governing the international trade in conventional weapons. Gaps and loopholes in national controls allow weapons and armaments to end up in the hands of serious human rights abusers.
In a statement released Friday, AI pointed out the recent repression in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrates that a wide range of arms used by military, security and police forces must be covered under the scope of the ATT.
The international community has widely recognized that conventional weapons, munitions and armaments are often used for internal repression as well as armed conflict, most recently by imposing arms embargoes against certain governments in the Middle East.
AI said it has identified U.S.-made tear gas canisters and solid rubber bullets, and French tear gas grenades and solid rubber dispersion grenades in the aftermath of the attacks on civilian demonstrators in the streets of Bahrain early this year.
In Egypt, the extensive use of a lethal type of shotgun ammunition by security forces resulted in many fatalities.
In Libya, AI said, UK-made vehicles were used by security forces, and in Egypt security forces drove into protestors using armoured vehicles.
The main arms suppliers to Bahrain, Egypt and Libya have been Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, the UK and the United States, according to AI.
“The recent events in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere have shown how a wide range of conventional military and security equipment can be persistently misused for unlawful force often with lethal consequences,” AI said.
Abramson of the Control Arms coalition told IPS the ATT must have a broad scope that includes all weapons and all deals.
He said other critical areas of improvement include text that requires public reporting, as well as cooperation with relevant international and regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
“The treaty must work to improve transparency into what is now an opaque process of loophole-ridden arms dealing that allows irresponsible and illicit trade to flourish,” he said.
All these improvements are doable and can be achieved if states remain focused, hardworking and proactive in the coming year, Abramson declared.
Asked about the next meeting aimed at finalizing the treaty, Abramson said “this is not 100 percent clear right now”.
He said there will be another meeting in February, which was originally intended to be a mostly procedural one and lasting less than a week. One of the topics that will likely be determined is the means and manner of civil society participation for the upcoming summer negotiating conference, “an issue we feel is very important”.
That meeting may now be extended to a full week and include some of the same content as past meetings.
“We’re waiting to see how this is finalized,” said Abramson.
The four-week conference, scheduled to take place next summer, is billed as the biggest event in the U.N. ATT process.
The expectation is that it will be held in July, but it’s possible that it may start in mid-late June.
“We’re again waiting to see final dates,” said Abramson.