Challenges of a global weapons treaty

Thursday, 21 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Guns are bad but just how bad has been strobe-lighted in the past few weeks as 154 nations gather to haggle out what could become the world’s first global treaty to regulate trade for all conventional weapons spawned from an estimated US$ 70 billion industry.

The countries gathered in New York this week after the US, Russia and China derailed a previous attempt to push through the agreement last year saying that they needed more time to consider the proposal. Arms control campaigners and human rights advocates say one person every minute dies worldwide as a result of armed violence, and that a treaty is needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of weapons and ammunition that they argue helps fuel wars, atrocities and rights abuses.

But the dollars are proving to be detractors. Even if the treaty is approved by the United Nations General Assembly, individual countries will have to ratify it. If that isn’t challenging enough, last year the US, the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons, backed off from formulating a tough treaty under pressure from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) that has threatened to torpedo any attempts by the US Government to ratify the treaty at congress level if Washington supports the legislation at the UN.

Other countries are also being taciturn. China last week was earmarked as the fifth largest arms manufacturer in the world, overtaking Britain and making strong inroads into developing drone technology that was previously the exclusive domain of America. It is also credited with being the largest arms exporter to conflict hotspots such as Pakistan. Britain, however, has called for a strong treaty but admitted that unanimity could result in a weaker pact.

On the sidelines Amnesty International has backed the treaty pointing out that UN weapons embargoes have failed consistently due to the lack of a global arms treaty. Describing it as a ‘free-for-all,’ the organisation has noted that UN Security Council arms embargoes are always circumvented because State regulation on arms trade is not strong enough and have called on the treaty to address this oversight.

They insist that many UN arms embargoes – against Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, Taliban, in the Balkans – turned out to be failures. International media reports have noted that this is largely because global arms markets are run by companies, dealers and brokers who use shell companies and off-shore bank accounts to keep themselves immune to national regulation, while many states have few or no regulations in place.

Another gaping loophole is the regulation of ammunition under the treaty, which the US has opposed, but human rights organisations say is crucial to strangling conflicts. In fact they have gone so far as to emphasise that a global arms treaty would be toothless without inclusion of restrictions on ammunition sales. Guns will automatically fall silent if ammunition supplies end.

With global peace and stability on the line, the diplo-talk, at least on the surface, has been positive, motivating people to hope for a constructive consensus from the members. The whole issue is now finely balanced between war and peace with vested interests of powerful countries likely to provide the hair trigger.