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.