Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

Why the world needs an arms treaty

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 9, 2012 14:18 UTC

In the past two decades, experts monitoring the international arms trade recorded more than 500 violations of United Nations arms embargoes. Just two have resulted in trials and convictions.

This telling statistic helps explain why diplomats, experts and arms control activists are in New York this month at a U.N.-hosted conference aimed at working out a treaty to regulate a vast market that so far has fewer rules than the trade in bananas. Where high reward-low risk activities are concerned, few can match the international arms trade, licit or illicit.

The contrast between the number of embargo violations and the number of arms dealers held to account comes from a study, to be published later this year, conducted by a team led by James Stewart, a law professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Stewart looked into cases, dating back to 1990, that prompted U.N. panels of experts to report violations of embargoes imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

“Despite extensive searches, we couldn’t find more than two convictions,” said Stewart, who worked as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before joining academia. What were the two cases that broke the pattern of impunity for embargo busters?

In 2007, a court in The Hague sentenced Dutch businessman Frans Van Anraat to 17 years in jail for selling raw materials for the production of mustard gas to the government of Saddam Hussein. Last January, Chile’s Supreme Court convicted two retired generals and seven others of illegally exporting weapons to Croatia in 1991. The case reached the country’s highest court after a long march through the military justice system.

The UN Security Council shows its weakness (again)

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 2, 2012 16:02 UTC

For decade after decade, diplomats at the United Nations have had on-again, off-again talks on how to reform the Security Council, the supreme decision-making panel on international security. The crisis in Syria shows that progress has been minimal and that power politics often trump human rights.

At issue is the composition of a body “frozen in amber since the end of World War II,” in the words of Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think tank. The biggest difficulty in unfreezing it is the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the 15-nation council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

A veto by one permanent member is enough to sink a resolution. On February 4, two veto-wielders, Russia and China, banded together to vote against a resolution that provided for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step aside, halt a ruthless crackdown on dissidents, and begin a transition to democracy. Assad saw the veto as a green light to crack down even harder. A week before the vetoes, the U.N. estimated the death toll at 5,400.

Who is the superpower, America or Israel?

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 21, 2011 17:19 UTC

On February 18, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. The vote raises a question: Who dominates in the alliance between America and Israel?

Judging from the extent to which one partner defies the will of the other, decade after decade, the world’s only superpower is the weaker partner. When push comes to shove, American presidents tend to bow to Israeli wishes. Barack Obama is no exception, or he would not have instructed his ambassador at the United Nations to vote against a policy he himself stated clearly in the summer of 2009.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop,” he said in a much-lauded speech in Cairo.

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