Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Arms Trade Treaty: Motion

5:00 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Apologies have been received from Deputy Dan Neville, who is unable to join us this afternoon. Before proceeding to the business of the meeting, I remind members and those present in the public gallery that their mobile telephones should be switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as they cause interference with the recording equipment even when in silent mode.

The purpose of the meeting is to consider the motion referred to it by Dáil Éireann on the Arms Trade Treaty done at New York on 10 October 2013. Under the terms of the Dáil motion, the select committee must consider the matter and report having done so to the Dáil not later than 7 November 2013. The meeting has been arranged because the deadline elapses tomorrow. I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and his officials. I propose that we hear an opening presentation from the Tánaiste and discuss the proposal as a single item. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I thank the Chairman and members. As always, it is a pleasure to come before the select committee. The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 2 April last by a very large majority of states. The text was negotiated at two diplomatic conferences held in July 2012 and March 2013. It is the product of a very positive and constructive process in which all states participated and involved a substantial input from civil society, with which my Department maintains a regular channel of communication.

The process which ultimately led to the Arms Trade Treaty could be said to have begun before 2000, with efforts in the United Nations to find a shared approach to the problem of the uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons. However, it was not until 2006 that the first resolution on the Arms Trade Treaty was passed in the General Assembly. The subsequent negotiating process was marked by strong support from across all regions. The support of those states most affected by uncontrolled flows of weapons in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, in particular, was vital to ensuring the successful outcome of the process.

Ireland and the European Union also made a strong contribution to the process. We were particularly committed to ensuring that the treaty contained strong provisions on international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as well as provisions relating to the often disproportionate impact of weapons and conflict on women and children.

For the first time, the treaty sets out legally binding obligations on states involved in the arms trade. These include an obligation to deny authorisation for an arms transfer where the arms involved would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or attacks on civilians; an obligation not to authorise arms transfers which would have a negative impact on

In Ireland, we already have an export control system in place which meets the requirements of the Arms Trade Treaty. For this reason, the implementation of the treaty in Ireland will not require additional legislation. Our export control system is run by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which considers all applications for licences to export military goods in consultation with my Department. The criteria used to consider such applications are set out in the EU common position on military transfers, 2008/944/CFSP. As it is the outcome of a negotiating process, the Arms Trade Treaty is not perfect and there are areas in which we would have liked stronger provisions to be included. For example, there is no common definition of the term "overriding risk" with regard to violations of human rights. While arms and ammunition must be included in export control regulations, they are not covered by the obligations relating to imports, brokering or transit, or under the transparency measures. We would also have liked the reference to gender-based violence to be stronger.

Nevertheless, the Arms Trade Treaty represents a very significant step forward. Never before has the international community set out, on a legally binding basis, the terms to be observed in authorising the transfer of arms. Never before has the vital importance of assessing the likely end use, the consequences of transfers on civilian populations and the link between arms transfers and human rights been set out so clearly.

The treaty will not achieve anything if it is not adequately implemented. This is the next phase of activity. Already, 114 states have signed the treaty, including all 28 EU member states, and eight states have ratified it. It is noteworthy that seven of the eight states that have ratified the treaty are from regions affected by the illicit trade in arms - the Caribbean and Africa. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th state ratifies it. It is important that entry into force come as early as possible. I am determined that Ireland should deposit its instrument of ratification as soon as possible in order that we contribute to early entry into force. With the approval of this motion, Ireland will have completed its domestic procedures.

We will then be in a position to deposit our instrument of ratification as soon as the Council completes the EU decision that is required because of those aspects of the treaty which fall under EU competence. We will work to encourage as many states as possible to sign and ratify the treaty. At the moment, a number of states with significant involvement in the arms trade have not signed, including Russia, China and India. However, these states did not vote against the treaty in the general assembly and have not rejected the option of signature. Therefore, I am hopeful they may yet come to agree with the substantial majority of states which voted in favour of the treaty.

Once the treaty has entered into force - possibly next year, if the current rapid rate of ratification continues - we will work with all interested states to ensure effective implementation of its provisions. The treaty allows for the exchange of information over time and for the adoption of shared understandings of what is involved in full and effective implementation. Our approach in the future will be guided by the principles that have served us well thus far - the essential importance of upholding international human rights law and international humanitarian law, the importance of shielding civilians from the worst effects of illicit and destabilising arms transfers and the importance of ensuring that arms transfers do not facilitate gender-based violence. Implementation of this treaty will make a significant difference to the lives of millions of people. I commend the motion to the committee.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this treaty and compliment officials and the Tánaiste on their participation in the treaty talks. This is a landmark arms trade treaty. It has been a long-standing Irish policy over decades to seek a ban on the illegal trading of arms. This policy probably goes back to the 1940s when Frank Aiken was Minister for Foreign Affairs. Ireland got great plaudits at the time for the efforts made by it as a relatively young State and the lead it took on these issues.

There are many positive aspects to the treaty. The briefing note we received states that the arms trade treaty, ATT, prohibits a state from authorising arms exports where it has knowledge that the weapons will be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other war crimes. This is particularly appropriate at a time when we are seeing so much devastation, loss of life, hardship and infliction of pain in areas such as Syria and many other places throughout the world. I hope the treaty can be ratified and that the figure of 50 states can be reached as soon as possible.

The industries involved in the manufacture of arms make huge profits. Perhaps we should consider the imposition of a levy on those profits to generate revenue to ensure the treaty is implemented as comprehensively as possible. The Tánaiste said that we would give whatever assistance we could to countries that might not have the capacity or expertise to reach the standards required in this area. Perhaps the industry itself should be obliged to contribute towards advancing the treaty and ensuring it is as effective as possible. I welcome and endorse this motion.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I support the decision of the Government to sign the ATT and support its ratification. One hundred and fourteen countries have signed the treaty and eight countries have ratified it. Is it intended that we will we work with our EU partners to ensure that other nations not only sign it but also ratify it? What benefit is there in signing up to the treaty but not ratifying it?

What are we doing to ensure that those European countries that sign the treaty meet their obligations? We know that in regard to Syria, some prominent countries, among them some of the biggest arms suppliers, wanted to lift the embargo. European countries that rank as large spenders are Britain, in fourth place, France, in ninth place, Germany, in 11th place, and Italy. We know that spending on arms contributed to the financial crisis also. What is the difference between signing the treaty and ratifying the treaty and what plans are in place to ensure other EU states abide by the treaty? What are the ramifications for a state that ratifies the treaty but breaks the obligation to sign it? I commend the Department for taking a lead on this, as we are one of only eight countries to do so.

The Tánaiste has pointed out that it is easier for us to sign up to it because of the agreement relating to an export control system. Will that be a difficulty for other EU countries? Where do we go from here?

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I commend the Tánaiste and his colleagues on their useful outlining of our position. I support the motion. To what extent can the individual member state signatories encourage those who might be reluctant to put the treaty into effect? What sanctions will apply where there is a reluctance to sign up and what can be done about those countries?

Does the treaty apply to components of weapons? For example, the humble ball-bearing is a component in weapons, as are lasers, homing devices and hi-tech instruments produced here. Does the treaty include such things? These components are not weapons, but without them a weapon does not function. Many hi-tech instruments are manufactured throughout Europe. To what extent are these included in the terms of the agreement?

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I have just two questions. We have highlighted the fact that Russia, India and China abstained from the vote, but we have not been given the names of the three countries that voted against the treaty. Will the Tánaiste give us the names of those countries? Second, what are the penalties for voting against it? Also, if we achieve the 50 signatories, what penalties are there for countries that ignore the implementation clauses?

We are conscious that arms are in use throughout Africa, in the Sahel and by Muslim terrorists, etc. Is it believed that these arms are illegally obtained, or are they purchased legitimately by these warring factions? What about spare parts and munitions? These groups have the weapons already, but I understand spare parts and ammunition are excluded from the provisions of the treaty.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I welcome this treaty as another step along with those taken in regard to nuclear and chemical weapons. It is important to acknowledge Ireland's contribution in this area. I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste outlined in his speech the imperfections of the treaty.

We have worked it out in theory and now we have it on paper, but the next issue is implementation and monitoring. I would like to hear more about how this area will be monitored. We know the illegal arms trade is extremely lucrative and while we read the proposals, we think about countries such as Syria and wonder whether the treaty will make any difference there. I was reading about Somalia yesterday and the positive moves being made there. What can the treaty achieve in terms of the governments and opposition in some countries who will use weapons against their civilian populations? Are there any provisions for the monitoring or implementation of that aspect of the treaty?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Does Deputy Mitchell wish to contribute?

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I would like to offer my support for the motion. Enough questions have been asked for me to be fully informed once they have been responded to.

5:10 pm

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I thank members for their support for the motion. Deputy Smith suggested the imposition of a levy to generate resources in respect of implementation. That is a worthwhile proposal. A UN trust fund - UNSCAR - which is designed to facilitate implementation and provide help to NGOs which are involved in assistance programmes has been established. This could possibly be used for the purpose to which the Deputy refers.

Deputy Crowe referred to our EU partners. The treaty will require the approval of the Foreign Affairs Council because there are shared competences involved. There is already a European Union export control system in place and a common position arrived at in 2008 governs the export of military and technological equipment. The common position to which I refer is actually more stringent in nature that what is contained in the ATT. As a result of the fact that it is already in operation here, we do not need to introduce new legislation in order to give effect to this. Export shipments from Ireland mainly involve components such as the ball bearings - to which Deputy Durkan referred - electronic equipment, digital material and so on. In many cases, this is dual use material. What happens is that an exporter will apply to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation which will then consult the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with regard to the country to which that exporter wishes to ship goods. If an issue arises in respect of human rights or whatever, we will make a judgment with regard to the use to which the relevant equipment is likely to be put and we may decide that a licence should not be issued. That is the system which is currently in place. The ATT places an obligation on countries involved in importing goods.

Deputy Eric Byrne inquired about the countries which voted against the treaty. These were Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Deputy Durkan asked about the countries which have not signed up to the treaty. We are involved in a process here. This country has a long record of promoting disarmament over many decades. I acknowledge the role played by Frank Aiken in that regard in the 1950s. The process begins with the emergence of a UN treaty - in this case the ATT - and countries then sign it. The latter is their indication of support for the treaty, which they must then ratify. The treaty comes into effect when a certain threshold is reached. In this instance, the number is 50. When that number of states ratify the treaty, it will come into force 90 days later. It will then be a matter of trying to encourage the remaining countries involved to ratify it, those who have not yet done so to sign it and to implement it. The position with regard to the penalties and sanctions to be applied will evolve over time. Penalties and sanctions will probably be imposed on a case-by-case basis.

I was asked if the treaty explicitly covers components. It does not do so but the European Union export control system makes provision in that regard. The treaty does not cover ammunition. However, Ireland, along with the majority of other states, did seek to have ammunition included within the scope of the treaty.

As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan stated, the treaty is not perfect. However, it represents both a start and progress. The international community has placed major emphasis on nuclear disarmament and there have been discussions in recent times on the problem of chemical weapons. Much of the suffering and grief that occurs across the globe is largely as a result of the sale of smaller arms and this treaty represents the start of a process to try to control and regulate the trade in this regard. There is still a long way to go in terms of having the treaty implemented but we have made a positive start. We sought the putting in place of a treaty of this nature and I am of the view that it represents progress.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Tánaiste. I am of the view that this is a landmark arms treaty. It must not be forgotten that it took seven years for us to reach this point. In view of the diversity of all the countries that comprise the UN General Assembly, obviously it was not possible to draft a perfect treaty. However, this it is as good as we are going to get. If it fosters peace and security and stops the supply of arms into regions of conflict, it will be considered to have done some good. That is the important aspect and I am delighted Ireland is supporting the treaty.

I thank the Tánaiste for engaging so constructively with the committee and I thank members for attending in such large numbers.