Controlling the Multibillion-Dollar Global Arms Trade

As the United States continues to debate gun laws and regulations, the United Nations seems to be having an easier time agreeing on how to regulate the global arms trade by adopting an international gun treaty after decades of trying to keep illicit weapons out of the hand of terrorists, insurgents, and organized crimes. The U.N. General Assembly approved the first treaty to regulate the multi-billion dollar global arms trade with a vote of 154 to 3 with 23 abstentions as the assembly chamber broke out with applause and cheers as the numbers were revealed. As the British Foreign Secretary William Hague states, “This is an historic day and a major achievement for the United Nation. The world wanted this treaty and would not be thwarted by the few who sought to prevent the introduction of robust, effective and legally-binding controls on the international trade in weapons.” The treaty will take effect once the 50 countries ratify it and much depends on who does or doesn’t as well as how it’s implemented. Last Thursday, Iran, North Korea and Syria blocked the adoption by consensus at a negotiating conference and on Tuesday the three voted “no” on the resolution while Russia and China abstained as they are both major arms exporters pushing Britain and other treaty supporters to seek a vote. The United states as well as many countries who voted for the treaty  control their arms exports, but there has never been an international treaty to regulate it. Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott believes that the treaty will “make an important difference by reducing human suffering and saving lives.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed but stressed that the treaty only applies to the international trade “and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory.”

The three countries which opposed the treaty and many countries that abstained complained that the treaty has many loopholes and can easily be “politicized” stating the key argument is the treaty favors  exporters like the United States over importers who need arms for self-defense and doesn’t include provision to ban sales to armed groups, according to the Associated Press. The treaty does not cover domestic arms trade, but will require countries who ratify it to establish national regulations to control transfers of conventional arms, parts and components as well as arms brokers. According to Diplomats, on the insistence of the United States a list of regulated arms was dropped- it covers battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles launchers, small arms and light weapons- leading many supporters to believe that this will limit the scope of the treaty. The treaty prohibits ratified states to transfer conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or promoted genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes as well as prohibits the exports of conventional arms if they are used on civilians or civilian building such as schools and hospitals. The treaty also requires parties to take measures to prevent the spread of weapons to illicit markets.

Ammunition was a key issue in negotiations as some countries want the same controls as for arm sales, but the United States and others opposed such tough restrictions according to the Associated Press. The final decision for each ratified country calls for the establishment of regulations for export of ammunition “fired, launched or delivered” by the weapons covered by the convention. Hopes of reaching an agreement were dashed last July when the U.S. followed by Russia and China needed more time to consider the accord, so the General Assembly in December decided to hold their final conference and deadline last Thursday. This time, the United States supported the final text, but Iran, North Korea and Syria used the U.S. consensus requirement to block adoption of the treaty however a provision in the treaty allowed the U.N. members to go to the assembly for a vote if consensus wasn’t reached. The General Assembly resolution had over a 100 cosponsors before the vote on Tuesday and it only required a majority vote from the 193 member world body. As Brian Wood, Amensty Internatoinal’s head of arms control and human rights, had this to say adter the vote according to the Associated Press: “The world has been waiting a long time for this historic treaty. Despite Iran, North Korea and Syria’s deeply cynical attempt to stymie it, the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations have shown resounding support for this lifesaving treaty with human rights protection at its core.” The treaty will be open for signatures from member states on June 3 and the supporters will continue to campaign to get all the countries to sign and then ratify it.


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