The Global Arms Trade Treaty: a bulletproof new deal or shot down in flames?
Imagine hearing that every day, approximately 2,000 people die from the use of unregulated arms sold and used in armed conflicts around the world, working out at over half a million casualties per year, or roughly one casualty every minute. And that every year, enough bullets are manufactured to kill every man, woman and child on the planet twice over. Now imagine hearing that while we have trade treaties in place that deal with the sale and export of bananas and even dinosaur bones, there are no such provisions in place for the sale of conventional weapons. Yet incredibly, this is exactly the conundrum that the U.N will attempt to resolve in talks which began on Tuesday 3rd this month at their headquarters in New York.
The negotiations involve delegates from over 150 countries and are expected to run until July 27th. Their aim is to attempt to put in place something not yet achieved to date: a watertight treaty which will regulate the global trade in conventional weapons, currently estimated to be over $60 billion. It marks a triumph of sorts for Amnesty International’s 10 year campaign for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), but it faces numerous obstacles from many of the countries involved.
The ATT is essentially a legally binding agreement between nations that they will adhere to the same standards when assessing whether to export conventional arms. It is aimed at regulating the global arms market to prevent weapons reaching the hands of terrorists, insurgents and human rights abusers. It has been a work in progress since 2006, when the U.N General Assembly requested all member states to submit their views on a legally binding arms trade treaty.
Among the many challenges facing the negotiators is the increasing globalisation of the arms trade, with components being sourced from around the world, and production and assembly in different countries, often with little or no control. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, told the assembly at the opening of the treaty talks that progress has been made on weapons of mass destruction over the years, but that the international community has not kept pace on conventional arms.
“Nuclear issues capture headlines, but conventional arms are killing people every day”, he observed, before continuing to outline the aims of the talks.
“Our common goal is clear: a robust and legally binding Arms Trade Treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence. It is ambitious, but it is achievable.”
We have treaties in place to deal with nuclear non-proliferation, so why not treaties to deal with the use of more conventional weapons? The answer lies in the intransigence of various nations who want to affix their own amendments so as to water down any putative arms deal. For example, the U.S wants the sale of bullets to be exempted from the treaty. China, India and Pakistan want an exemption to be made on the sale of certain weapons such as machine guns and assault weapons.
The importance of globally agreed terms of reference for the arms trade is underscored by the ongoing political crisis in Syria, which has seen the deaths of between 16,000-23,000* people in the conflict between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition since March 2011. The ammunition for the fighting has been fuelled by imports of major weapons into Syria, which increased by 580% between 2002-06 and 2007-11. Russia, which supplied 78% of Syrian weapons imports in 2007-11, has opposed the proposal for a U.N arms embargo on Syria.
However, before condemning Russia’s role in prolonging the catastrophic events in Syria, Western governments need look no further than their own backyard to find their personal skeletons in the arms trade closet. In 2008 the U.K sold armoured crowd control vehicles and ammunition to the Gaddafi regime in Libya. The U.S sold tear gas grenades to the government of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in November 2011, whose army then proceeded to use them against Egyptian civilians protesting against his regime. With an estimated 80% of all casualties in recent conflicts being civilians, the need for a globally agreed ATT is paramount, but how will it be enforced?
Oxfam are another NGO at the vanguard in the push for an ATT. On their website, it states that the aim is to incorporate the treaty into the national law and regulations of every ratifying nation. It would be reinforced through rules such as regular public reporting. Therefore it would be illegal for any supplier government to ignore the Treaty’s criteria when supplying arms. Any decisions that break the terms of the Treaty could then be challenged and potentially overturned in the national courts. Under the proposed Treaty, the theory is that governments would be required to report their arms sales in an open and transparent way which would lead to greater public and parliamentary scrutiny.
The damage inflicted by the unregulated sales of arms worldwide has far-ranging humanitarian and economic effects, particularly in Africa; the continent is estimated to lose an estimated $18 billion per year due to armed violence. According to Oxfam’s 2007 “Africa’s missing billions” report, armed conflict shrinks an African nation’s economy by 15%. This calculation is based on methodology similar to that used by Stewart and Fitzgerald in their thesis War and Underdevelopment, where the fall in gross domestic product (GDP) was used as a measure of costs in 14 conflicts. It is actually a conservative estimate as it does not take into account international costs, such as humanitarian aid, the economic impact on neighbouring peaceful countries and lingering economic impact once the conflict has been officially resolved.
According to the report, unregulated arms trade in Africa has resulted in, among other things, 50% more infant deaths, 15% more undernourished people, a reduction in life expectancy by five years and 20% more adult illiteracy. Africa has 14% of the world’s population and 20% of the world’s firearms homicides.
There is therefore much at stake in these talks, however, given that the five permanent members of the U.N Security Council (the U.S, China, Russia, France and the U.K) are also among the world’s leading weapons exporters, any agreement reached will only be done so after long and tortuous negotiations. Even if an agreement is reached, the ATT will still have to be ratified by each country taking part for it to become a reality.
Opposition to the treaty in the U.S has come in the form of a letter to President Obama from Republican Party congressmen. In it, 130 members wrote that the treaty was likely to pose significant threats to U.S national security, foreign policy and economic interests. They also claimed it would be unconstitutional, posing a risk to the viability of the Second Amendment’s declaration of the right to bear arms. In 2006, the U.S voted against the resolution that started the ATT process, but that decision has since been reversed by the Obama administration. Critics of the ATT say it will limit individual nations’ rights to defend themselves and that it is too comprehensive in its scope. Their concern is that trying to apply similar standards on all countries, regardless of their existing arms regulations or human rights records, would be impractical and unenforceable.
However, with the global arms trade turning into a $60 billion-plus uncontrollable behemoth, fuelling conflicts and economic destruction across the globe, this is no longer an issue that can be side-lined by the major players. The view of many experts, including Cornelius Vogt, from the German Council on Foreign Relations and Sergey Denisentsev, from the Russian Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, is that there is little prospect of the ATT being implemented in its current form. However, they do envisage a limited version of the treaty being ratified, which will take into account the concerns of the Security Council members.
With so many lives on the line throughout the world, the view among the ATT’s supporters may therefore be that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, and that even a watered down version of the treaty might provide an important first stepping stone in greater regulation of the arms industry. As Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, said at the outset of the talks: “We want to make sure arms don’t reach the hands of governments who are potentially going to violate, or pose substantial risk of violating, human rights or humanitarian law. That’s really what has to be stopped. It’s in everybody’s interest to have a common treaty which everybody has agreed to.”
*According to U.N figures.