Unprecedented regulations for arms trade

Joe Fenn

For the first time since before the Second World War, world leaders are calling on the UN to regulate the global arms trade.

A campaign initiated by Nobel Laureates in 2003 is gathering steam; final talks about the contents of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are taking place in the UN this week. In July this year, world leaders will vote on what could be one of the most ground breaking treaties in the history of the world.

The arms trade, which produces two bullets a year for you, me and everyone else on the planet, has faced almost no regulation in the past as to where and to who weapons can be sold. A treaty such as the ATT would be the first of its kind in the history of the world. There are currently arguably more restrictions on the trade of bananas than there are on the trade of weapons.

The treaty, however, is not focused on stopping the arms trade. It appears to have no intention of stopping the “legitimate” trade in weapons, rather just preventing the sale of arms to nations deemed as intending to use them in “serious violations of international human rights.” Weapons sold by major exporters such as the US, Russia and the UK were used last year in suppression of protestors in Libya, Bahrain and Egypt. Violations of human rights in the conflict in Sudan over the past 10 years were also committed using weapons bought legitimately from Russia and China.

But the major world powers are covering their bases. Barack Obama has brought the US into the negotiations after two Bush governments refused them, but along with Russia, China and other exporters, they are calling for a weakened treaty. The treaty that is being proposed calls for no transfer to be permitted if it is highly likely that it will aid the violation of human rights, but major exporters are asking that it only oblige states to ‘take into account’ these possibilities. Exactly what ‘taking into account’ entails remains unclear.

If major exporters such as the US refuse to agree to the treaty, its effectiveness would be seriously limited. The US currently accounts for around 30% of the arms exported around the world, Russia provides around 23% and Germany, France and the UK make up around 23% between them. China is one of the world’s largest importers, buying in around 9% of the total. The US, Russia and China are three of the major countries calling for limitations on the treaty.

In the US, those in opposition to the ATT argue that it is intended to infringe on their second amendment rights, or the right to bear arms. If the treaty addresses sales of arms to civilians, it may well affect the rights held by American citizens for over 200 years. However, advocates of the treaty argue that it will have no effect on domestic sales; the UN General Assembly resolution explicitly states that regulating internal trades in arms is the “exclusive right of States.”

In the UK, critics have been concerned by David Cameron’s recent silence on the subject. Although the UK was one of the early nations to agree to some kind of treaty regulating the arms trade, Cameron’s silence on the subject has concerned advocates of the treaty. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, described it as “deafening.”

The UK is the fifth largest exporter of weapons in the world, with exports bringing in around £7bn a year. This amounts to around 1.8 per cent of the total exports and less than half a per cent of the GDP.

Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, provides some idea of the UK’s stance on the treaty. He described securing an ATT of some nature as “a priority for this government” and insisted, “it must be robust”, covering “all conventional arms and their munitions.” However, he does not deny that the UK government is looking for compromise: “there [will] be compromises; there have to be.”

Whatever the final treaty contains, once it is passed, countries not abiding by its terms will be accountable to international law. Countries will be required to keep comprehensive records of their sales and send reports to other nations signed up to the treaty. Failure to comply or breach of the terms will leave them liable to prosecution by international law, although how effective punishment will be enforced is not obvious yet.

Some believe that peer pressure from other countries signed up to the treaty will be the most effective deterrent for breaching its terms. It may also be that internal courts could be given powers as well. For example, were the UK government to breach the treaty, their decisions could be subject to judicial review and the government could be forced by the courts to stop.

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