The trade in death


WITH ALL the traditional glacial pace of arms control negotiations, a draft Arms Trade Treaty yesterday entered what many hope will be its final lap as delegates from 150 countries gathered at the United Nations for a month of talks. The treaty, mandated by 2006 UN resolution 61/89, represents the first attempt at international regulation of the conventional arms trade.

It will, if its proposers’ current draft remains intact, make it illegal to sell arms to countries where there is “a substantial risk that those arms would be used to commit … serious violations of international humanitarian law”, threaten regional security, or inhibit sustainable development. Such welcome prohibitions would, if enacted, prevent, for example, Russia supplying weapons to Syria.

The draft treaty would extend regulation to all small arms and ammunition, and seeks to prevent the diversion of weapons to illicit trafficking networks and to curb the impact of corruption in the arms trade. It is estimated that 750,000 people die each year as a result of violence enabled by illegal gun sales, and, as Amnesty International points out, there are currently more rules governing the selling of bananas than guns.

The meeting will, however, pitch EU diplomats, the Irish among them – supporters of a strong treaty – against a small but powerful minority of states including the US, Russia, China, Zimbabwe and Syria. President Obama reversed Washington’s initial opposition to the treaty, but the US remains opposed to making the controls mandatory or to the inclusion of munitions. Russia argues that definitions of prohibited regimes are likely to be subjective and ideologically imposed although the treaty draft ominously provides that the signatories will themselves enforce and interpret its provisions.

The US position is particularly problematic – it will do its best to water down the text in New York this month, and then probably refuse, or fail, to be a signatory to the diluted treaty once agreed. Whatever Obama’s personal feelings, the treaty would require two-thirds support of the Senate, a substantial majority of which, under pressure from the powerful National Rifle Association, has already made clear its opposition in the unlikely event it impinges on US citizens’ constitutional rights to bear arms. Passage is far from guaranteed, and, clearly, the non-involvement of Russia, China and the US (the world’s biggest arms exporter, with two-fifths of the global total trade – $55 billion-a-year – in conventional firearms) would leave the treaty virtually toothless.

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