The month of July 2012 saw delegates from more than 150 countries descend on New York City in an attempt to negotiate a global arms trade treaty under the vaunted auspices of the United Nations. Although regulations govern transactions between states in areas as diverse as agriculture, commerce, manufacturing and travel, no such regulations exist for conventional armaments. Efforts to regulate the international flow of weaponry can be traced to the early 1990s, but the UN first addressed the issue in 2006 in a General Assembly resolution. It was hoped that July’s United Nations Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty would end in some form of agreement after the United States, which accounts for 40% of global arms exports, expressed support for the issue back in 2009 after years of Bush Administration opposition to the treaty. Critically, this support was tempered by the condition that negotiations would be “under the rule of consensus decision-making,” effectively giving any one of the UN’s 193 member-states veto power over treaty agreements. Nonetheless, this development galvanized the international community’s interest and set the stage for two years of preparatory committees meant to lay the groundwork for a draft treaty that would be ready in time for last month’s summit in New York.
Unfortunately, no final treaty emerged from a month of intense deliberation. Instead, 90 states seeking to save face contributed to a joint statement: “we are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.” The Control Arms Campaign – a collaborative project between Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms – blames this breakdown in negotiations on the “lack of political courage by major players.” Essentially, what this means is that the world’s biggest arms producers (the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, China, Germany and Italy), which together account for 80% of all sales, refuse to negotiate away one of their countries’ most lucrative export industries. The executive director of Amnesty International USA, Suzanne Nossel, is much more direct in her condemnation: “This was stunning cowardice by the Obama Administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line. It’s a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”
While it is a shame and a pity that the collective will of the international community could not agree on the principles and implementation of a treaty for global arms production and distribution, why is this regulation even needed? The simple argument is that making the global arms trade more open, transparent and accountable will reduce the likelihood that these weapons are used for purposes that contravene international law. This is because states that openly flaunt these norms would be exposed to the name-and-shame game, which would not only discredit them internationally but would also make them liable for violating existing international law, including human rights and humanitarian law. In turn, this situation would render the offending government vulnerable to prosecution from national and international courts of justice, thereby providing an enforcement mechanism for the treaty.
But there is also a deeper argument with a more complex logic at play here: as a direct result of the systemic violence and instability engendered by the unregulated flow of conventional arms, socioeconomic development in the poorest countries is negatively affected, and progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals is hindered significantly. In addition to the incalculable human losses, armed conflict is estimated to cost the continent of Africa $18 billion per year – more than the amount of official development assistance directed its way per year – in lost foreign direct investment, destruction of property, criminal enterprises, corruption and a whole host of related societal ills. With nearly 2,000 people dying every day as a result of gun-related violence, the pernicious outcomes of an unregulated global arms trade are becoming more and more difficult to ignore.
And yet, even if such a treaty did exist, illicit arms sales would continue to flourish. Peter Herby, head of the Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, warns that “all the core provisions of this draft treaty still have major loopholes which will simply ratify the status quo, instead of setting a high international standard that will change state practices and save lives on the ground.” Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, points out that arms sent abroad as aid or donations would be exempt from the latest treaty draft’s vague definition for arms transfers, meaning that “these loopholes could easily be exploited to allow arms to be supplied to those that intend to use them to commit serious human rights violations, as the world is seeing in Syria.”
Other practical impediments to the realistic implementation of an arms control regime cannot simply be swept under the proverbial rug either. Third-party countries and corporations can be used to facilitate the transfer of arms from a supplier-state to an outlawed client-state without attracting any unwanted attention. National laws can be bypassed by manufacturing the weapons themselves in the blacklisted, recipient country’s sovereign territory. Corrupt politicians, resource rivalries, fragile state institutions and offshore banking practices all contribute to the difficulty of identifying and impeding the proliferation of these armaments across national borders. A noteworthy trend also compounding this problem is the increasing privatization of security and military services by governments all over the world, which can lead without much imagination to further exploitation of the treaty’s weaknesses.
In reality, the vested interests in a $60 billion industry would inevitably find and exploit the loopholes in any eventual treaty, but this does not excuse the failure of the world’s major powers to at least agree on a draft resolution of a treaty that would regulate the import, export and distribution of conventional armaments, including everything from tanks and combat aircraft to warships and missile launchers. At the same time, this is no reason to sound the treaty’s death knell before it has even been given the chance to work in practice. It is a necessary beginning to a less violent and more prosperous society of states, even if it is also for the time being insufficient. Any consequent deficiencies in the core principles or implementation procedures of the treaty should be dealt with in a rigorous and systematic manner, but the moral imperative and overwhelming logic behind a regulatory framework for the global arms trade can simply not be disputed and should not be delayed any longer.