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Time to curb the illicit global arms trade

Conventional weapons that are sold or diverted to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, and terrorist groups kill hundreds of thousands of civilians every year in places like Syria and Sudan. World leaders must act soon on an arms trade treaty being negotiated this month at the United Nations.

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To succeed, the assembled ambassadors must put sons over guns and daughters over slaughter. At a minimum, the new treaty should require states to withhold approval for the international transfer of arms in contravention of UN embargoes or when there is a substantial risk the items will be used to commit serious violations of human rights. Despite its strong, pro-human rights rhetoric, the Obama administration has not yet endorsed such a formula.

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Negotiators must also ensure that the treaty covers all types of transfers and the full range of conventional weapons, from military aircraft to small arms.

The treaty must also cover the import and export of ammunition. The world is already full of guns. The constant flows of ammunition feed and prolong conflicts and armed violence. The exclusion of ammunition from the scope of the treaty would greatly reduce its ability to achieve many of its most important goals. The United States already licenses the import and export of ammunition, and there is no compelling reason why Washington should not ask the rest of the world to step up to the US standard. 

For the treaty to have teeth and ensure that civil society can hold governments accountable, it should require states to report regularly and publicly on their arms sales and purchases.

Finally, the treaty should also require states to regulate the activities of international arms brokers, such as convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, as their desire for profit has fueled gruesome violence against civilians in recent conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and elsewhere. Today, only 52 of the world’s 192 governments have laws regulating arms brokers and less than half of those states have criminal or monetary penalties associated with illegal brokering.

Allegations made by some here in the United States that an arms trade treaty would infringe on the domestic rights of US citizens to legally possess firearms amount to irresponsible demagoguery. The treaty will govern international arms transfers and fully respect the sovereign rights of nations to regulate gun ownership as they see fit. No one, except maybe illicit arms dealers and human rights abusers, should oppose common-sense international law regulating the arms trade.

World leaders must act now. A high-quality treaty will make it more difficult for states to justify arms sales to the Assad regime and similar brutal governments, and make it more costly for unscrupulous suppliers to do business. Over time, this will help prevent human rights abuses and make the world a safer place.

Frank Jannuzi is the head of the Washington office of Amnesty International USA. Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the independent Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.


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