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A bullet-proof arms trade treaty

Publication Date : 28-06-2012


That is what the world community is calling for -- a bullet-proof Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and for some very good reasons. In fact, the idea of a treaty regulating arms trade was initially put forward in 2003 by a group of Nobel Peace Laureates led by Oscar Arias, and it was first addressed in the UN in December 2006 when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 61/89.

The UN is scheduled to craft "common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons" during a 4-week long conference in New York between July 2 and 27. Negotiations will be carried out by the 193 Member States of the UN. In addition, hundreds of representatives from non-governmental organisations, public interest groups, the arms industry, media and inter-governmental organisations will attend, from which, hopefully, will emerge a robust ATT.

Regrettably, the world has so far failed to realise the great harm being wrought every day by the proliferation of licit weapons. That compounds the problem when this combines with the unabated spread of illicit small arms. We wonder whether those who deal in the purchase and sale of arms and ammunition will ever feel qualms of conscience to know that the sale of bananas is even more regulated than sale of legal weapons.

Interestingly, Amnesty International will launch a month-long campaign during the time of the UN conference on ATT by issuing a "bananafesto" in New York's Times Square drawing attention to the fact that bananas are subject to stricter global trade rules than conventional weapons. One is also not certain whether the largest global arms trading countries are aware of the fact that every day more than 2,000 people are killed as a consequence of armed violence, mostly precipitated by easy access to lethal arms and weapons.

We also fail to internalise the fact that most of the illegal arms and weapons that percolate into the clandestine market are in fact legally produced. It is because of weak governance generally, and specifically due to lack of strict control, oversight and regulatory mechanisms, that these find their way into illegal trade, and eventually in the hands of non-state actors, insurgents and extremists.

A very good case in point is the arms haul in Bangladesh's port city Chittagong where perfectly legal weapons and military hardware would have become an illegal lot had the ten-truck load of weapons and ammunition not been intercepted in 2002.

Governments during the Cold War era and even afterwards have armed rebel groups against regimes they had opposed, from their own weapon lot, which eventually helped stimulate further societal violence and conflict. The US administration, for example, had facilitated the shipment of guns to Mexican drug cartels at various times.

The lack of international minimum standards, according to Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Arms Control Association, "allowed a notorious gun smuggler like Viktor Bout to circumvent US-backed sanctions and sell weapons to rogue regimes for years before he was captured in Thailand and sentenced to 25 years in prison in New York earlier this year." The protagonists of the treaty, including those mentioned above among others, assert that the treaty is vital to national security in a world where only 52 countries have laws regulating arms brokers -- and fewer than half of those have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal brokering.

One could well ask when there is already a UN Register on Conventional Arms since 1991, where countries subscribing to it report regularly, and there are more than 170 countries that do so, what is the need for another treaty on arms trade. The simple answer is the Register lists only seven categories of arms whereas the ATT proposes 12, including technology and equipment to produce these weapons. However, there are also some differences between the Register and the proposed treaty.

The Register is a confidence building measure, and participation in the Register is voluntary, and registration is basically limited to trade volume of large-scale weapons designed for offensive action. And we need more than a CBM mechanism.

The question is what if a major exporter is against the treaty? The proposed treaty does in no way circumvent a country's inherent right to self defence and security and based on a simple principle that there would be no transfer of weapons when those are likely to be used for violation of international human rights, humanitarian law, or will adversely affect sustainable development.

For its part Bangladesh has been in full support of the proposals emphasising on the need to formulate it in a way that would be universally acceptable. And happily, most of the largest arms suppliers support the spirit of the treaty.

However, there are sceptics in the US Senate which would have to approve it before becoming a party to the treaty. They feel that it would violate the 2nd Amendment and would want to ensure that right of sovereign states to individual or collective self-defence does not prejudice the inherent right of personal self-defence.

There is little doubt that if we are to protect ourselves from bullets we must have a bulletproof arms control treaty participated by all countries. And more importantly, implement the provisos effectively.

The author is Editor, Oped & Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.


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