The British foreign policy machinery is working toward two different and possibly contradictory goals. First, British diplomats are making a final push to secure a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that would impose strict conditions on arms transfers by governments. Negotiations foundered last fall in part because of U.S. nervousness about the possible impact of the issue on the U.S. presidential election. But diplomats are meeting in New York this week in an attempt to finalize the long-sought treaty, and the U.K. is very much in the lead. Here's foreign secretary William Hague's latest plea in the Huffington Post:
[T]he case for an effective treaty, an arms trade treaty, that will save lives, reduce human suffering and bring consistency to the global trade in conventional arms is overwhelming....When terrorists are the beneficiaries of an unfettered proliferation of conventional arms they threaten the security of not just the countries where they seek refuge, but also their neighbours and the rest of the world. It is clear our endeavour is more urgent than ever. And so next month Britain will return to the United Nations determined that, after more than six years of hard work, the international community will conclude a treaty whose legacy will endure for generations to come....
The ATT will not solve all our problems, but it offers us the chance to take a very significant step forward. A global Arms Trade Treaty that denies rogue states illegal arms will make us all more secure. It will help prevent instability and stop arms reaching terrorists. But more than this it will offer the prospect of a better future to millions who live in the shadow of conflict. This is the prize on offer in March. History will not forgive those who seek to prevent it and we will not rest until we have secured it.
At the same time, British officials are edging ever closer to providing weapons and military training to certain Syria rebels. Last month, London unsuccesfully sought changes to the European Union's blanket arms embargo on Syria to allow military support for the rebels. The Guardian reports today that David Cameron's government may be prepared to skirt the EU embargo soon if it is not modified:
Britain is to keep open its options on providing arms to Syrian rebels after David Cameron indicated that Britain would be prepared to bypass the EU arms embargo if other member states refuse to lift the measure in May.
The prime minister, who last week approved the provision of armoured four-wheel drive vehicles and body armour for Syrian opposition leader as part of a £9.4m package of non-lethal equipment, warned that inaction could encourage jihadi groups.
So Britain is simultaneously advocating a treaty that would impose tough conditions on arms transfers into conflict zones and agitating to send weapons to Syrian rebels, some of whom have clearly committed war crimes (including the recent abduction of UN peacekeepers). As Foreign Office lawyers would likely rush to point out, there's no necessary contradiction here. The draft text of the Arms Trade Treaty prohibits weapons shipments "for the purpose of" facilitating international crimes (a very low bar).
But it also would require every state to scrutinize possible transfers in the following way:
1. In considering whether to authorize an export of conventional arms within the scope of this Treaty, each State Party shall assess whether the proposed export would contribute to or undermine peace and security.
2. Prior to authorization and pursuant to its national control system, the State Party shall assess whether the proposed export of conventional arms could:
(a) Be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law;
(b) Be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law; or
(c) Be used to commit or facilitate an act constituting an offence under international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism to which the transferring State is a Party.
Were the arms trade treaty in effect today, Britain would have an international legal obligation (they already have a European obligation) to assess the likelihood that weapons sent to Syrian rebels would be used for rights violations. The fact that London would almost certainly decide that the likelihood was low points to one of the weakest aspects of the treaty: it relies entirely on national judgement calls not open to independent review.