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Conventional arms trade treaty – towards less limited limitation?

To date, treaties regulating the conventional arms industry have been largely limited to banning specific types of weapon, be that exploding bullets, chemical weapons and most recently landmines. Controlling the trade in more run-of-the-mill things like guns and bullets has only really been considered worth attempting in the past couple of years.

The good news of the past week, highlighted for me by UN Dispatch, is that the United States will join talks towards some form of conventional weapons treaty. A draft resolution calling for the commencement of talks on such a treaty has been co-drafted by Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya. Previously the US had been inimicable to such a treaty, and there can be little doubt that the previous Australian government would not have sought to co-sponsor a resolution that may have put it at odds with the Bush presidency. How pleasing it is that current political circumstances in both countries now provide an opportunity for progress on this issue.

In its position paper on the proposed Arms Trade Treaty, the International Committee of the Red Cross says:

“Weapons are, by definition, probably the only legal product explicitly designed to cause harm to humans. The lack of regulation in the arms trade should be considered an unfortunate anomaly in the international legal system. A key objective then must be to protect human health and dignity by ensuring that the product we are speaking of is only available to those who use it in accordance with existing law, including international humanitarian law.”

Peter Yeo, Executive Director of the Better World Campaign, guest posting for UN Dispatch says:

“Stopping the flow of conventional weapons to conflict zones, terrorists, and insurgent groups requires robust international cooperation. Secretary Clinton’s announcement affirms that after years of sitting on the sidelines the United States will join international efforts to stem the flow of irresponsible or illegal arms transfers to groups that have brought misery and destruction to millions of people around the world.”

As usual, when Americans talk about weapons their Second Amendment (the right to keep and bear arms) becomes a sticking point. For this reason, negotiations will proceed on the basis that laws regulating internal controls on the ownership and use of firearms will remain the purview of national governments.

cleveland.com quotes Scott Stedjan, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America as saying:

“No government is discussing a treaty that would ever impact the right to bear of arms, nor require regulation of domestic sales of arms… This is totally about international transfer of arms so that they don’t go to human rights abusers.”

There has been some criticism, as you’ll see in the cleveland.com link, of the US’ position that such a treaty must be agreed by consensus. These critics suggest that consensus is merely another form of veto, to which might be added that it is a recipe for minimalism. Yet, given the profligacy with which both States and non-state actors expend limited resources on arms and conflict, any participation and agreement by the US – responsible for 70% of the global arms trade last year – has got to be preferable to none.

Comments

David says:

If the proposed agreement is indeed aimed at restricting arms from “human rights abusers” then America might have vested interests in vetoing it.
It was specified that 75% of the almost $3 billion of aid going to Israel from America be spent on US arms. Israel aren’t exactly the greatest proponents of human rights.

Aid? To whom? The already regionally disproportionate Israeli military and the US economy. Not my idea of aid

Rewi says:

David,

Thanks for your response to this.

It is all too easy to concentrate on one particular state when it comes to human rights abuses. I’m sure that you would agree that there are far too many contemporary examples of human rights abuses by a variety of states to concentrate on only one.

Yes, as you say, the US may have an interest in restricting the provision of arms to particular state. The same could be said to be true of any of the five states holding veto power in the Security Council.

The fact remains that there has not been, to date, any attempt at a comprehensive conventional arms limitation treaty. I’m not necessarily hopeful that this attempt will be successful. But it is an attempt.

As I said in the original post, the US is responsible for 70% of the global arms trade. Any moves towards limitation has got to be counter to the interests of US arms manufacturers. They really ought deserve our support in this, don’t you thinK?

David says:

Very true Rewi. I suppose, like all things in diplomacy, one tentative suggested babystep can make it easier for more ambitious moves in the future. The consideration of such a step is indeed a foot in the door.

It’s quite interesting looking at America with the power of the domestic gun lobby and the rhetoric of the NRA. Any such arms treaty will first have to gain domestic support and the mass of resources the NRA can mobilise against politicians will make it a very daunting move. I’m not sure if the Obama admin – with its’ declining public support – will be up to the task. Then again the NRA already campaigned heavily against Obama’s election so they may be votes already lost. The NRA’s favourite saying is that any minor restriction is just one step on a “slippery slope towards gun prohibition”. They can probably apply this to international matters as well. Poor Obama.

Well that’s the 2nd time I’ve gone off on a tangent. Sorry Rewi.

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