Thursday, February 16, 2012

Call to arms

I wrote a leader for this week’s Nature on the forthcoming talks for an international Arms Trade Treaty. Here’s the original version.

Scientists have always been some of the strongest voices among those trying to make the world a safer place. Albert Einstein’s commitment to international peace is well known; Andrei Sakharov and Linus Pauling are among the scientists who have been awarded the Nobel Peace prize, as is Joseph Rotblat, the subject of a new autobiography (see Nature 481, 438; 2012), in conjunction with the Pugwash organization that he helped to found. This accords not only with the internationalism of scientific endeavour but with the humanitarian goals that mostly motivate it.

At the same time, the military applications of science and technology are never far from view, and defence funding supports a great deal of research (much of it excellent). There need be no contradiction here. Nations have a right to self-defence, and increasingly armed forces are deployed for peace-keeping rather than aggression. But what constitutes responsible use of military might is delicate and controversial, and peace-keeping is generally necessary only because aggressors have been supplied with military hardware in the first place.

Arms control is a thorny subject for scientists. When, at a session on human rights at a physics conference several years ago, Nature asked if the evident link between the arms trade and human-rights abuses might raise ethical concerns about research on offensive weaponry, the panel shuffled their feet and became tongue-tied.

There are no easy answers to the question of where the ethical boundaries of defence research lie. But all responsible scientists should surely welcome the progress in the United Nations towards an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), for which a preparatory meeting in New York next week presages the final negotiations in July. The sale of weapons, from small arms to high-tech missile systems, hinders sustainable development and progress towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and undermines democracy.

Yet there are dangers. Some nations will attempt to have the treaty watered down. That the sole vote against the principle at the UN General Assembly in October 2009 was from Zimbabwe speaks volumes about likely reasons for opposition. But let’s not overlook the fact that in the previous vote a year earlier, Zimbabwe was joined by one other dissenter: the United States, still at that point governed by George W. Bush’s administration. Would any of the current leading US Republican candidates be better disposed towards an ATT?

Paradoxical as it might seem, however, a binding international treaty on the arms trade is not necessarily a step forward anyway. Most of the military technology used for recent human-rights abuses was obtained by legal routes. Such sales from the UK, for example, helped Libya’s former leaders to suppress ‘rebels’ in 2011 and enabled Zimbabwe to launch assaults in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s.

The British government admits that it anticipates that the Arms Trade Treaty, which it supports, will not reduce arms exports. It says that the criteria for exports “would be based on existing obligations and commitments to prevent human rights abuse” – which have not been notably effective. According to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the ATT aims “to prevent weapons reaching the hands of terrorists, insurgents and human rights abusers”. But as Libya demonstrated, one person’s insurgents are another’s democratizers, while today’s legitimate rulers can become tomorrow’s human-right abusers.

The FCO says that the treaty “will be good for business, both manufacturing and export sales.” Indeed, arms manufacturers support it as a way of levelling the market playing field. The ATT could simply legitimize business as usual by more clearly demarcating it from a black market, and will not cover peripheral military hardware such as surveillance and IT systems. Some have argued that the treaty will be a mere distraction to the real problem of preventing arms reaching human-rights violators (D. P. Kopel et al., Penn State Law Rev. 114, 101-163; 2010).

So while there are good reasons to call for a strong ATT, it is no panacea. The real question is what a “responsible” arms trade could look like, if this isn’t merely oxymoronic. That would benefit from some hard research on how existing, ‘above-board’ sales have affected governance, political stability and socioeconomic conditions worldwide. Such quantification is challenging and contentious, but several starts have been made (for example, and We need more.

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