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.

In this photo released by Syria's official news agency SANA July 8, Syrian troops participate in a military exercise. Op-ed contributors Frank Jannuzi and Daryl G. Kimball write: 'In the absence of international standards and effective national controls, irresponsible arms suppliers exploit the gaps for profit. For years, for instance, Russian firms have supplied helicopters to Syria which have reportedly been used by the Assad regime to attack civilian population centers.'

Each year, hundreds of thousands of civilians around the globe are slaughtered by conventional weapons that are sold, transferred by governments, or diverted to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups. The enormous human toll from the unregulated trade of conventional arms undermines international security and impedes economic and social development.

But the governments and arms brokers that contribute to crimes against humanity by pouring guns and ammo into conflict zones are not violating any international law and are often outside the jurisdiction of national laws. This hole in the fabric of international security can and must be fixed beginning this month.

After three years of preparations, diplomats from the United States and more than 100 other countries are meeting at the United Nations in New York to work out a new legally binding, global arms trade treaty by a July 27 deadline. The goal is to establish common standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.

While the US and a few other countries have relatively tough regulations governing the trade of weapons, many countries have weak or ineffective regulations, if they have any at all. The result is that there are more international laws governing the trade of bananas than conventional weapons, like AK-47s.

In the absence of international standards and effective national controls, irresponsible arms suppliers exploit the gaps for profit. For years, for instance, Russian firms have supplied helicopters to Syria which have reportedly been used by the Assad regime to attack civilian population centers in recent weeks.

Weapons, ammunition, and equipment made in Belarus, China, and Russia continue to flow into Sudan, supplying government military forces that commit atrocities in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains regions.

As US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security Thomas Countryman said in April, when it comes to the arms trade there must be “a new sense of responsibility upon every member of the United Nations that you cannot simply export and forget.”

The arms trade treaty won’t stop all illicit arms transfers, but it has the potential to change behavior by requiring states to put in place basic regulations and follow common sense criteria that reduce irresponsible international arms transfers and hold arms suppliers more accountable for their actions.

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.

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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