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April 8, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Arms Trade Treaty

Last tuesday, whilst the first year-law students were moping about in their pyjamas feeling vaguely sick from too much chocolate and too few constitutional conventions, the politicians and diplomats at the UN headquarters in New York (well, most of them) were excitedly giving
each other high-fives and applauding the successful adoption of a landmark human-rights treaty. The arms trade treaty will be the first of its kind to regulate the multibillion-dollar arms trade. With an estimated one person falling victim to armed violence every minute as well as
countless others enduring great suffering, there is no denying the significance of a treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons.

So how exactly will the arms trade treaty (att) work? the treaty seeks to implement and enforce strict guidelines regulating the export of conventional weapons—basically everything apart from biological and nuclear weapons: think missiles, small arms, combat vehicles etc. This won’t altogether ban the export of weapons but rather it will prohibit such exports if there is a significant risk that the weapons will be used to violate international humanitarian and human rights law. When exporting arms, states will have to ensure that they will not be used to undermine peace and security in the recipient country. The aim is to get weapons out of the hands of criminal groups, terrorists and warlords who could use them to commit atrocities such as genocide and war crimes.

This all sounds ideal. Ban Ki-moon seemed pretty chuffed when the treaty was adopted, stating that the att is “a historical diplomatic achievement—the culmination of long-held dreams and many years of effort… a victory for the world’s people.” Without wanting to dismiss the opinion of the United Nations Secretary-General—surely the dream career of every second Weir house student counts for something—can we truly pronounce the att as a victory? After all, North Korea, Syria and Iran— states whose human-rights records are dire to say the least—refused outright to adopt the treaty. These states had previously blocked the final negotiations which ended five days earlier, resulting in the vote being put forward to the General Assembly. 23 countries abstained from voting in the assembly, among them Russia and China, two of the world’s
biggest arms exporters. While the US did support the treaty, after having opted out of negotiations last July for want of more time for consideration, they refused to support strict restrictions on the sale of ammunition. Since the treaty was passed by the assembly and not adopted
by consensus, it will be non-binding and states will have the ability to withdraw. This is certainly not the ‘bulletproof’ treaty which civil-society groups envisaged.

However, I believe the treaty marks an important milestone in addressing the great suffering caused by the corrupt arms trade. It is by no means perfect, but it was voted for by an overwhelming majority of member states despite fierce resistance from some and the countless complexities posed by the issue. It is reassuring to know that world powers such as the US, Germany and Uk, who have much to gain financially and politically from exporting arms at whatever cost, have the courage to back a treaty which would inconvenience their own states but further the interests of vulnerable people on the other side of the globe. If a country sees advantages in helping other states and establishing a good international reputation, then surely this can only be a good thing.

The treaty can also be heralded as a success for global civil society, for without strong public backing it would never have taken off. Originally proposed by Nobel Laureates, the idea of an ATT was pushed forward by the global civil society alliance Control arms. Control arms was formed to represent millions of people from religious, political and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, Caritas and Parliamentarians for global action. Organised petitions and successful campaigns resulted in UN member states agreeing in 2006 to work towards an ATT.

Seven years of UN negotiations followed, during which time civil-society groups continued to drum up public support and lobby governments. In New Zealand, over 9000 signatures were collected, the treaty was given unanimous support in Parliament, and we made good progress in convincing our Pacific neighbours to show their support for the treaty. You may remember Amnesty on Campus giving out banana guns in Kirk last year to draw attention to the fact that there are more regulations on the global trade of bananas than that of arms. (Amnesty on Campus – victoria university, check out our Facebook page.)

So although the treaty has failed twice to achieve consensus, we have succeeded all the same in adopting a treaty. As Brian Woods, Head of Arms control at Amnesty International explains, “as in all treaty negotiations, we did not get everything that we wanted. However, since this treaty can be amended and since it has many strong rules, it provides a firm foundation on which to build an international system to curb the flow of arms to those who could commit atrocities.” Allison Pytlak, Campaign Manager for Control Arms, agrees: “at last, the murky world of arms dealing has come under the spotlight of the international community.” Although it may be cold comfort for those suffering in Syria and elsewhere, victims of armed violence should have hope in the knowledge that the international community does not condone this murky trade, and seeks instead to put an end to irresponsible arms trading which destroys the lives of so many.

But the work has not finished yet. Control arms is now urging governments to sign and ratify the att as quickly as possible so that it can be speedily implemented. The treaty will come into force 90 days after ratification by the 50th signatory. Since last July’s negotiations, more than
325,000 people have been killed due to armed violence. There is no time to lose.

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