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A call against arms

Publication Date : 01-08-2012


Just as the athletes of the world were about to join hands and celebrate the world’s ability to come together for sport, the concept of international unity was dealt another blow.

For most of July, representatives of 170 countries had been at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City attempting to come to an agreement on an international arms trade treaty. On Friday, the same day as the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in London, they admitted defeat.

According to the UN, the global arms trade nets US$60bn every year, with weapons traded killing a person every minute somewhere in the world. According to Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, some 50,000 people lost their lives through armed violence in the very weeks during which countries squabbled over the text of the treaty. Against the background of their negotiations was the ongoing conflict in Syria where an oppressive government continued to massacre thousands with arms and weapons easily purchased precisely because there are no regulations dealing with arms moving from one country to another.

None of it seemed to matter, however, the obstacles to agreement among nations being far harder to accomplish than the theatrics of competitive sport under the umbrella of international solidarity.

The history of the arms trade treaty and the onerous job of even bringing 170 negotiators to the treaty table reveals how transnational unity, when it means agreeing on something substantive, has become an international fantasy littered with reports that go nowhere and working groups that accomplish nothing.

In 2006, the UN general assembly requested nations to submit their views on an arms trade treaty. More than a hundred countries did so and their views were summarised in a 2007 report produced by the secretary general. In 2008, another group of governmental experts convened and produced another report. In 2009, an open-ended working group open to all states held two meetings on an arms trade treaty. A total of six sessions of this group were planned and held. At the end of those in 2009, the general assembly decided to convene a conference on the arms trade treaty in 2012 “to elaborate a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms.”

The general assembly also indicated that the remaining four sessions of the open-ended working group would be considered "preparatory" sessions for the conference; they took place in July 2010, February 2011, July 2011 and February 2012. In this last meeting held last month, 65 ratifications from countries were required to put the treaty into effect.

When the representatives failed to come up with language for a treaty this Friday, they agreed of course on the one thing that all involved seemed to have become good at: the need for more meetings. This was supposed to be hopeful and a means of keeping the door open, with no one commenting on the impossibility of getting a two-thirds vote from 193 nations in the general assembly when 65 nations were not brought to agreement during this round.

In the meantime tanks, guns, grenades, missiles and other means of eviscerating human lives continued to make their merry, unimpeded course from one country to another. Unsurprisingly the US — which is the biggest arms trader in the world, responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s conventional arms transfers — walked away in the crucial last moments, saying that it needed more time. Its example was followed by Russia and China, the world’s other big arms exporters, which were only too happy to have an excuse to abandon negotiations.

They were not the only ones bent on bickering. Initial negotiations were held up on the matter of Palestinian participation. When that fire was contained early on by allowing the Palestinian contingent a place at the front of the negotiating table but without voting rights, other fires soon erupted — the play ending with the impasse that is now known to all.

Early on in the negotiations, Pakistan’s representative ambassador, Raza Bashir Tarar, said that any treaty agreed upon by member states must constitute a comprehensive approach which takes into account the priorities of all member states in a non-discriminatory manner and that “from Pakistan’s point of view any treaty or agreement that is aimed at regulation of conventional arms must address both the demand and supply side of the equation”.

The issue is a lethal one for Pakistan. In Karachi, 625 of the 700 people killed in target killings in the first five months of this year were killed by small weapons and were targeted from close range. According to statistics collected by the website from various weapons dealers in Pakistan, 125,000 guns were sold in Karachi in 2009, more than 160,000 in 2010 and nearly 200,000 in 2011. A Pakistan-made .22 calibre pistol could be bought for as little as 4,000 rupees ($42) and imported weapons purchased for between 10,000 rupees and 20,000 rupees.

Despite these and other more damning statistics, Pakistan was not pushing for regulation; a UN working draft of the treaty showed that even before the talks concluded, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Japan had already said they would not sign the treaty because they wished to have the freedom to equip their militaries as they saw fit.

As most of the world spends hours watching the Olympic Games this week, a tear or two should be shed for the now nearly dead international arms trade treaty. “There is no consensus and the meeting is over,” said Ewen Buchanan, one of the UN negotiators, as talks collapsed last Friday. His words captured a contemporary international reality far more accurate than can ever be reflected by the Olympic Games.

(1 rupee = $0.0106)

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


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