Big Guns Hold Key to Arms-Trade Treaty Talks

By on Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

If majority ruled in the United Nations, the global arms trade would be regulated. But in the real world, the big guns hold the key to an agreement.

Negotiations have resumed at the UN on what has been declared a “final” attempt to reach the consensus necessary for a treaty to regulate the $70 billion international arms trade.

Despite interest on the part of most participants in a July conference to conclude a treaty, talks broke down when sovereignty concerns arose among major arms exporters.

Following nearly a month of negotiations, the United States, Russia, and China requested more time to consider the proposed treaty, and the issue was eventually rescheduled for this week.

Advocates of the treaty note that a person dies every minute as a result of armed violence, and envisage a safer world if all states were required to follow the same standards on weapons transfers.

The goal of the treaty is to eradicate the trade of conventional weapons — from small arms to tanks to attack aircraft — to conflict zones or areas where they could be used to commit human rights violations.

‘Voices Of The Majority’

With a draft already prepared, backers of the treaty are optimistic that negotiators assembled from about 150 countries can work out a deal over the next nine days of talks.

Anna MacDonald, head of arms control at London-based charity Oxfam, says there is heavy political pressure on states that were noncommittal during the last round.

“We’re expecting that in this round of negotiations that the views of the majority of states are the ones that are really going to prevail. Because, last time, in July, there was a big momentum to see the treaty agreed, and a great deal of frustration expressed by lots of governments when the negotiations stalled at the last minute,” MacDonald says. “So I think many governments are going into it this time saying, ‘We are not going to allow that to happen again, we really want to make sure that the voices of the majority of countries — well over two-thirds — who want to see this treaty agreed are the voices that prevail.’”

There is significant moral support, as evidenced by the recent call by 18 Nobel Peace Prize winners for fellow laureate Barack Obama to support the treaty.

Washington appears to be more receptive to working out a deal than it was in July, with Secretary of State John Kerry offering assurances last week that the White House is “steadfast in its commitment to achieve a strong and effective arms-trade treaty.”

‘Loopholes’

But there remains considerable resistance in the United States to the idea that an international arms treaty could infringe on Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.

U.S. backing is crucial, says Jeffrey Laurenti, a UN expert at New York-based think tank The Century Foundation.

There is a possibility that, should the final round of talks fail to produce a consensus — a requirement that essentially gives any state veto power — the issue could be put to the UN General Assembly for a majority vote. But the result would be a treaty that doesn’t have any teeth, Laurenti warns.

“It’s not going to be enacted in an effective way if it doesn’t have the United States as part of it,” Laurenti says.

Washington has made clear that it will not accept a “weak” treaty that impinges on U.S. law or contains escape clauses for arms exporters.

As Oxfam’s MacDonald explains, one such “loophole” in the draft treaty would allow weapons transfers to be made as part of existing defense contracts even if the arms were sent to war-torn areas.

In the current context that could relate to Russia, which has come under criticism for continuing to sell arms to Syria.

Question Of Oversight

And that brings up the broader issue of big arms-exporting states’ reluctance to allowing outside regulation of an important source of revenue.

Of the three states who requested more time to consider the last proposed treaty, the United States is the largest arms exporter, Russia is second, and China has risen to fifth, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts says he is not optimistic that the differences that led to the collapse of the last conference can be overcome this time around.

“Truly speaking, I am very, very skeptical about the possibility to reach any kind of success in this treaty,” Golts says. “[The] Russian position is, as well as China’s position, is rather clear: [The trade of] light weapons gives us sufficient money.”

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