U.N. Passes Arms Trade Treaty as Middle East Implodes

Illegal arms traffickers reportedly upset by loss of business
by Sofi Muñoz
News Co-Editor

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The United Nations made history on April 2 when the General Assembly passed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first coordinated international effort to regulate the $70 billion global arms trade. Efforts to restrict the sales of weaponry began nearly two decades ago, but were often vetoed by countries that benefitted from arms sales. Yet last Tuesday, the vast majority of member-nations, including the world’s largest arms exporter, the United States, adopted the measure in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called, “a victory for the world’s people.” The tally of votes revealed that the treaty was supported by 154 countries; 23 nations chose to abstain and only three countries (Syria, North Korea, and Iran) voted no.

The UN’s unprecedented move shows just how problematic the arms trade has become, particularly the trafficking of smaller arms because they are cheap to buy, hard to track, and easy to transport. Many times, these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists, gangs, and insurgents; virtually every single conflict you read about in the papers has been affected by the proliferation of arms. Think about it; where does the Democratic Republic of the Congo obtain the AK-47’s it uses to arm child soldiers? How do Mexican drug lords arm their gangs? How does Al Qaeda supply militants with lethal weapons? Groups such as these are able to acquire weapons largely because there is little arms regulation on sales, both legal and illegal. The ongoing and increasingly bloody Syrian civil war has been greatly exacerbated by Russia’s sale of arms to the beleaguered country, where it is estimated that over 70,000 people have been killed. As the United Nations Office for Disarmament states, “Small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups.”

Though regulating and limiting the sale of arms seems like an obvious move to promote peace and security worldwide, it has taken over two decades for the global community to enact the Arms Trade Treaty. According to the New York Times, humanitarian groups have been pushing for some sort of moral standard to be set on arms trade since 1991, and it has taken seven years of intense negotiations amongst member states to pass the Arms Trade Treaty. Many countries, including the United States, expressed concern that the treaty would violate national sovereignty by regulating the sale of domestic weapons, while other countries with sketchy human rights records, such as Russia, Cuba, and China, complained that the document could be manipulated for political purposes. Thus, in the words of Australian Diplomat Peter Woolcott, the ATT is “a very good framework to build on, but it is only a framework.”

According to the Huffington Post, “The treaty prohibits countries that ratify it from exporting conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes, or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or if they could be used in attacks against civilians or schools and hospitals” while also requiring signatories to stop weapons from being sold on the black market. This would mean that countries such as Syria would no longer be able to import weapons and would make it more difficult for groups such as Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas from acquiring arms on the black market, which would have profound and lasting consequences. Additionally, the ATT calls for an international forum to monitor arms sales worldwide, evaluate whether arms could be used for human rights violations or crimes against humanity, and draw attention to offenders. However, the issue that perpetually dogs any U.N. action, the issue of implementation and real world application, presents problems. The U.N.’s power is entirely dependent upon how much power its member nations choose to give it. The ATT relies on signatory nations to essentially level regulations on themselves (its not as if a swarm of peacekeepers are going to swarm Syria and halt arms trade). Rather, the success of the treaty depends on how committed the world is to regulating the sale of weapons and holding themselves to standard higher than making money. If the majority of the world is willing to implement the treaty, a real difference could be made, as international pressure could persuade reluctant nations to follow suit.

The Arms Trade Treaty may have set a new precedent in arms control, but its success is far from assured. A great deal depends on the degree to which the treaty is implemented and how committed nations are to establishing peace and security for the millions that are threatened by the proliferation of arms. As the world waits for the ratification of the ATT following the signature of at least 50 member states, one can only hope that this document will be a real force for change, and not just another empty promise.

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