If you needed any further proof that Amnesty International is to the 21st century what rum-swigging bearers of the White Man’s Burden were to the 19th, look no further than its current campaign for a global arms trade treaty. Amnesty is basically agitating for the West, which it considers civilised and responsible, to prevent the rest, or what Amnesty euphemistically refers to as the “wrong” people, from getting their hands on guns and bombs. It is a call for a colonial-style carve-up of the world, between those judged decent and grown-up enough not only to own guns but also to determine who else may own them (us), and those judged too infantile and brutal to be let anywhere near a gun lest they unleash “the worst kind of atrocities” (them).
Given that America has used its vast armoury to cause more destruction around the world than any other nation over the past 10 years, it is bizarre that Amnesty should be pleading with it to lead the way on restricting the flow of guns to the “wrong” countries. Amnesty wants Washington to give its blessing to a treaty that would restrict the global sale of weapons if there is a “substantial risk” that those weapons will be“used to commit serious human rights violations”. (I’m not being funny, but what else would the weapons be use for? To tickle people?) Amnesty says Washington should “demonstrate true leadership” on the issue of arms trading and “send a clear message to other world leaders” that it will not tolerate weapons falling into “the hands of human rights violators”.
This is a bit like asking Rose West to look after runaway girls and ensure they come to no harm. Why ask a nation that has committed numerous “atrocities” and “human rights violations” to authorise a treaty that will allegedly prevent those kind of things from happening elsewhere by taking guns out of the “wrong hands”? It is because, like its moral forebears in the colonial movements of the nineteenth century, Amnesty believes that the fundamentally decent West, whose wars are but an aberration of its normal character, has a moral responsibility to disarm and pacify and by extension to civilise the gun-toting hordes over there, whose wars are an expression of their innate warped character.
The demand for a treaty that would prevent Western countries from selling their guns to basket-case nations overseas sounds radical, a bit like Amnesty activists are sticking it to the arms industry and denting their profits a bit. But in truth, what Amnesty is calling for is the concentration of weaponry in the hands of powerful, allegedly trustworthy nations, and also for those nations to play the role of global governors of war and peace by granting the flow of weapons to some nations but not to others. There’s nothing remotely radical in begging Washington and its mates in the West to decide who may and may not fight wars.
Probably the most patronising thing about Amnesty’s campaign is its belief that simply by removing weapons from chaotic warzones around the world, we might stop war. Amnesty says the cause of global conflict today is the fact that we live in “a world awash in weapons and military hardware that are too easily obtained”. From this moralistic viewpoint, weapons themselves cause wars; guns are the actual drivers of conflict Over There; the “wrong” people see that these weapons are pretty easy to buy and so they buy them and kill people with them – for a thrill, presumably. In truth, the wars being fought in Africa and elsewhere are fundamentally political or territorial; they’re struggles for power or resources, just as Western governments’ wars are. War is the pursuit of politics by other means over there just as much as it is over here. By depicting these conflicts as a product of the arms trade itself, Amnesty further robs foreign peoples of their status as adult actors, as creatures of politics and power, and reduces them instead to overgrown kids playing with dangerous toys simply because they can.
Political conflicts need political solutions, not white-skinned do-gooders in Gap jackets decreeing which Johnny Foreigners may be armed and which may not. It is more than a hundred years since Kipling, in his poemThe White Man’s Burden, described certain foreign peoples as “half devil and half child”. How depressing that groups like Amnesty still cleave to such an outlook.
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