Delegates from around the world gather in New York on Monday for the start of month-long U.N.-hosted negotiations to hammer out the first-ever binding treaty to regulate the global weapons market, valued at more than $60 billion a year.
Arms control campaigners say one person every minute dies as a result of armed violence around the world and that a convention is needed to prevent illicitly traded guns from pouring into conflict zones and fueling wars and atrocities.
Most U.N. member states favor a strong treaty.
If they get their way, all signatories would be charged with enforcing compliance to any treaty by companies that produce arms and with taking steps to prevent rogue dealers from operating within their borders.
They say conflicts in Syria and elsewhere cast a shadow over the talks, reminding delegates of the urgency of the situation.
“In Syria, Sudan and the Great Lakes of Africa, the world is now once again bearing witness to the horrific human cost of the reckless and overly secret arms trade,” said Brian Wood, international arms control and human rights manager at Amnesty International.
“Why should millions more people be killed and lives devastated before leaders wake up and take decisive action to properly control international arms transfers?” he said.
There is no guarantee the July 2-27 negotiations will produce a treaty, let alone a good one. In February, preparatory talks on the ground rules for this month’s talks nearly collapsed due to procedural wrangling and other disagreements.
In the end, the United States and other countries succeeded in ensuring the treaty must be approved unanimously, so any one country can effectively veto a deal.
But the treaty may not be doomed if that happens. Wood said nations that support a strong pact could bring a treaty to the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly and adopt it with a two-thirds majority vote if there is no consensus in July.
The Arms Trade Treaty was initially put forward in 2003 by a group of Nobel Peace Laureates, and first addressed in the U.N. General Assembly in 2006, when 153 U.N. member states voted in favor of such a treaty, according to Al Arabiya correspondent in New York Talal Alhaj said. 24 countries abstained including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. voted against the resolution.
Given the predominant position of the U.S. as a global arms exporter (the world’s biggest arms exporter with a $55 billion-a-year trade in conventional firearms), any such treaty would have limited relevance without its participation, he said.
Ratification would require passage by a 2/3 majority of the U.S. Senate in addition to presidential approval, which is rendered unlikely by opposition from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association. As of September 2011, 58 U.S. Senators opposed the Arms Trade Treaty, more than 1/3, according to Alhaj.
There are deep divisions on key issues to be tackled in the treaty negotiations, such as whether human rights should be a mandatory criterion for determining whether governments should permit weapons exports to specific countries.
Arms control advocates say a strong treaty is long overdue.
“It is an absurd and deadly reality that there are currently global rules governing the trade of fruit and dinosaur bones, but not ones for the trade of guns and tanks,” said Jeff Abramson, director of Control Arms.
Abramson, Amnesty’s Wood and Anna Macdonald of Oxfam spoke with reporters on Friday about the negotiations.
Much of the discussion revolved around Russia’s arms supplies to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's 16-month assault on an increasingly militarized opposition has killed over 10,000 people, according to U.N. Russia is Assad’s top arms supplier.
Wood said Russia is not the only culprit in Syria, one of many conflicts fed by unregulated arms deliveries. Western nations have also helped Assad. There are tanks on Syrian streets, Wood said, that come from Slovakia, upgraded by Italy.
Oxfam’s Macdonald said: “From Congo to Libya, from Syria to Mali, all have suffered from the unregulated trade in weapons and ammunition allowing those conflicts to cause immeasurable suffering and go on far too long. In the next few weeks, diplomats will either change the world -- or fail the world.”
One senior Western diplomat said the Syrian conflict has led to a “polarization” within the arms trade talks, with Russia becoming increasingly defensive about arms supplies to its ally Damascus that it says have nothing to do with the conflict.
The campaigners outlined what they want to see in the treaty. Governments should be required to regulate the sale and transfer of all weapons, arms, munitions and equipment used in military and domestic security activities, ranging from armored vehicles, missiles and aircraft to small arms and ammunition.
Governments should also be required to make risk assessments before authorizing arms sales, make public all authorizations and deliveries and track their use. Trading without permission or diverting arms should be made a crime, they said.
One of the reasons this month’s negotiations are taking place is that the United States, the world's biggest arms trader accounting for over 40 percent of global conventional arms transfers, reversed U.S. policy on the issue after Barack Obama became president and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.
But U.S. officials say Washington insisted in February on having the ability to “veto a weak treaty” during this month’s talks, if necessary. It also seeks to protect U.S. domestic rights to bear arms -- a sensitive issue in the United States.
The other five top arms suppliers are Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Wood, Macdonald and Abramson said some of the top arms trading countries have been joining other nations in an attempt to weaken the treaty. They said the United States, China, Syria and Egypt were pushing to exclude ammunition.
China, they added, wants to exempt small arms, while several Middle East states oppose making compliance with human rights norms a mandatory criterion for allowing arms deliveries.