Lebanon News

Middle East arms conference kicks off in Beirut

EU Ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichhorst speaks during a press conference before handing scholarships to Palestinians at Haifa school in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. (Mohammad Azakir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: United Nations representatives urged Middle East states to hash out their differences to control international weapons trade, as a closed-door seminar with countries across the region kicked off in Beirut Tuesday.

Military experts from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Lebanon, Qatar and Iraq and as well as the European Union and U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research gathered for the talks at the Gefinor Rotana Hotel in Beirut.

Over the next three days the delegates are scheduled to go through nearly 24 hours of off-the-record discussions about how to standardize and better control international arms trade and prevent illicit weapons trafficking.

Gulf countries are huge buyers of advanced weapons systems, and Middle East states in general are major arms importers on a global scale.

The past year of uprisings in the Arab world has raised the profile of arms control issues.

Weapons were transferred to opposition groups in Libya during the revolution, but the issue is particularly acute in Lebanon where weapons are been smuggled into Syria to arm the opposition fighting Bashar Assad’s forces.

Violence has continued to spread throughout Syria, shaking the capital recently with a number of clashes. Syria’s delegate to the conference did not arrive, likely due to uprising.

“Our meeting is topical as during the past year we have seen some unprecedented developments and changes in the political landscape of many countries in the region.” said U.N. arms expert Theresa Hitchens.

“The situation is not easy and I know that some of your colleagues who would have wanted to be with us here today were unable to attend because of other more pressing issues in their capitals,” Hitchens said.

The talks are aimed at laying the groundwork for eventual adoption of a global Arms Trade Treaty, which is scheduled to be negotiated at the U.N. in the next few months.

The treaty attempts to standardize the arms trade industry and tighten controls over weapons to prevent arms dealers from exploiting loopholes in weapons transfers.

Black market weapons that are fueling conflicts around the world often originate from legal arms trades.

“When adopted, the treaty will be the first international instrument regulating the trade in conventional arms, and has the potential to become a vital tool in combating the illegal and poorly regulated trade of arms and its destructive consequences worldwide,” Hitchens said.

This week’s conference will be held under Chatham House rules: There will be no recordings or outside spectators. Organizers repeatedly called for open expression, and said they hoped the closed-door talks would lead to honest discussions without public posturing.

Seminar organizers will issue a report in the coming weeks summarizing major sticking points and areas of consensus between participants.

The details of the treaty are being decided on at an international level, but organizers said there was lots of room for input and changes from participants.

Organizers summarized divergent views of Arab states over the treaty as falling into two camps: states that want a broad interpretation of the international treaty’s language and those that want specific definitions and strict regulations.

They hoped discussion could clear the ground for finding consensus.

“Many of the most complex issues such as application of these issues remain open to discussion,” said EU Ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichhorst. “Finding common ground on all these outstanding issues should remain our ultimate goal.”

In addition to the Syrian situation, holding the conference in Lebanon was a striking choice.

Nearly all political parties benefited from illicit arms transfers during the Civil War, and some political parties still do.

Palestinian camps are rife with unregulated weapons, and large swaths of area in the south of the country still contain cluster bombs dropped by Israel during the 2006 war, while other areas contain land mines dating from the Civil War.

“Lebanon is well aware of the importance of stopping proliferation of weapons,” said Ambassador Mansour Abdullah, speaking on behalf of Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour.

“We cannot but support this arms trade treaty,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2012, on page 4.

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