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US signature on Arms Trade Treaty will help end wars and protect civilians

On Sept. 25, US Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty, which has the potential to make a real difference in reducing the deadly consequences of the irresponsible global arms trade and protect innocent civilians. It deserves the world's full support.

By Rachel Stohl, Daryl G. KimballOp-ed contributors / September 27, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Arms Trade Treaty as Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs Miguel Serpa Soares looks on at the UN in New York Sept. 25. Op-ed contributors Rachel Stohl and Daryl G. Kimball write: The US signature 'will put pressure on other key arms sellers and join the treaty....Over time, the treaty will help tip the scales in favor of human rights and human security.'

Jason DeCrow/AP



Amid the headline-grabbing events at the United Nations this week – President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly, the Security Council’s vote on Syria, and the first visit of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani – another significant event took place without much fanfare.

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On Sept. 25, US Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty. The landmark treaty establishes the first ever common international standards governing the international trade in conventional arms. It has the potential to make a real difference in reducing the deadly consequences of the irresponsible global arms trade.

As the UN focuses on Syria, where a horrendous civil war has now taken an estimated 110,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million civilians, the need for the treaty – and US support of it – is clear. That conflict has been fueled by ongoing shipments of weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime from Russia and Iran, and weapons shipments to the rebel forces through neighboring countries. Many of these transfers have facilitated attacks on civilians and have likely led to war crimes.

Worldwide, unregulated and irresponsible arms transfers increase the availability of small arms and ammunition in other conflict zones. According to a 2012 report published by Oxfam, since 2000, more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition has been imported by countries operating under UN, regional, or multilateral arms embargoes.

As a consequence, hundreds of thousands more are killed each year by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and transferred to criminals and illegal militias. The enormous human toll of this cycle of violence undermines economic development and political stability in fragile countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Myanmar, Congo, the Central African Republic, Colombia, and beyond.

The United States is now one of more than 100 other signatories to the treaty, which was adopted after years of effort by the UN General Assembly in April. Only three countries cast votes against the Treaty: Iran, North Korea, and Syria, all three of which are subject to UN arms embargoes.

The US signature is a welcome step in demonstrating leadership in stopping the deadly consequences of the unregulated international arms trade. For the US to be a full party, the treaty must be ratified with a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. The tense political environment in Washington makes a swift ratification unlikely, but as a signatory, the US is obligated to fulfill the object and purpose of the treaty.

The US is responsible for approximately 70 percent of the global trade in conventional arms, and the US signature on the treaty sends a powerful signal that responsibility in the arms trade does not have to come at the expense of dominance in the global arms market. In fact, it can benefit even those with large market share. The Arms Trade Treaty will level the playing field for US companies, which have long been held to higher standards than many of their international counterparts.

Allegations made by some here in the United States that the treaty infringes on the domestic rights of US citizens to legally possess firearms amount to irresponsible demagoguery. The treaty only governs international arms transfers and fully respects 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.


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