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Arms Trade Treaty: Let’s finish what we started

By Kate Hughes, Oxfam Great Britain Global Campaigner – Conflict and Humanitarian

I was 10 when I joined my first protest. Since then I have been campaigning against poverty and war, and for human rights and dignity. I have been part of a human chain to cancel poor countries’ debt, I have run for Congo, I have marched against violence against women and I have marched to stop climate chaos. Now I have joined the movement Speaking Out for a bullet-proof arms trade treaty. This week I’m in New York to follow the negotiations at the United Nations.

I have always believed in the importance of people power. When enough people shout loud enough for long enough, you will see a change. Control Arms, launched in 2003 by Amnesty, Oxfam and IANSA, is a campaign that proves this point well. The campaign set out to change the fact that despite fueling human rights abuses, conflict and poverty around the world, the global trade in weapons is not regulated. Can you believe that there are more international regulations on the trade of bananas or coffee than there are on weapons?

A million-faces campaign, launched pre-Facebook

The need for the treaty might seem so obvious, but back in 2003 it wasn’t even on the political agenda. Control Arms changed that by creating a movement – building people power. The campaign launched in 60 countries simultaneously, each with its own creative theme to help gain media attention – London’s Trafalgar square was filled with tomb stones, in Sri Lanka there were painted elephants.

The first action? The arms trade is such a faceless, secretive and shady trade, so the first action asked for people to give their faces in support of an Arms Trade Treaty.

The target? 1 million faces.

Bearing in mind that this was in 2003, before the rise of smart phones and social media, this campaign was way ahead of its time. To promote the action, some really excellent videos were made – like this AK47 Teleshopper advert:

Many of the faces collected for the petition came from the countries worst affected by the illicit arms trade, places without internet or web cams readily available, so most of it was done face to face. Old school. People going out and speaking to people about the campaign and either taking their pictures or asking them to draw a picture of themselves.

Putting the issue on the UN’s agenda

So much about the arms trade is really complex and not easy to get the average person to care about, let alone to get the media to report on. This is where some more creative campaigning came into play – the helicopter stunt. In order to show how globalized the weapons trade has become, and the importance of regulating parts and components of weapons as well as complete weapon systems, Oxfam staff assembled a mock attack helicopter on the bank of the river Thames in London. In the space of a couple of hours Oxfamers assembled a military helicopter out of boxes with parts labeled with the flags of the country they had come from.

In 2005 the UK government came out in support of an Arms Trade Treaty, and quickly all of Europe followed suit. Momentum was building and the million faces had nearly all be collected. In 2006 the millionth face – Julius Arile Lomerinyang, aged 23, from Kenya – personally handed the petition to Secretary General Kofi Annan. Shortly after, the UN voted in favor of a resolution to start working on an Arms Trade Treaty.

The final steps

6 years later there is widespread agreement about the need to regulate this devastating and dangerous trade – but the final steps are hard. In July diplomats will meet in New York for a month to hammer out what this treaty will cover and how it will actually work. Now more than ever we need to keep campaigning and pushing to make sure that this treaty actually does what we campaigned for it to do – saving lives and making people safer from abuses caused by the unregulated arms trade. Follow my journey in New York this week on this blog and join the campaign! Together we put this on the UN’s agenda; we need your help to get the job done. Speak Out now for a bullet-proof Arms Trade Treaty!

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Originally published by Oxfam International