Obama must support global Arms Trade Treaty

The unregulated global arms trade fuels wars and human rights abuses worldwide. The Obama administration must work with other countries at the UN to close the deal on a robust, effective Arms Trade Treaty to reduce the illicit flow of weapons to conflict zones.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Amnesty International human rights activists hang a banner on a US embassy fence during a protest in favor of a global arms trade treaty, in Mexico City, March 19. Op-ed contributors Daryl G. Kimball and Raymond C. Offenheiser write: 'The Arms Trade Treaty will not, by itself, prevent all illicit and irresponsible arms trafficking, but it will help reduce the enormous toll of armed conflict around the globe.'

The global arms trade is out of control. In armed conflicts from Syria to Sudan, Mali to Myanmar, and Congo to Colombia, thousands of people are slaughtered by weapons of war that are transferred by governments into the hands of unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups. 

The unregulated global arms trade, which increases the availability of small arms and ammunition in conflict zones, is fueling wars and human rights abuses against civilians. More than 740,000 men, women and children die each year as a result of armed violence. 

The deaths caused each year are at the center of a larger tragedy. The poorly regulated arms trade makes development in war-torn countries more difficult. For example, the prevalence of AK-47’s and ammunition in the rural areas of South Sudan, a country plagued by five decades of war, is having devastating effects on peace-building and poverty-eradication efforts.

The time for action to reduce the illicit, unregulated flow of weapons and ammunition is now. 

Rather than watching this destruction from afar, the international community has an opportunity to offer a solution. Diplomats from the United States and more than 150 other countries are at the United Nations in New York for the “final” round of negotiations (set to conclude tomorrow) for a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty would restrict the flow of weapons across borders and close the loopholes unscrupulous traders now navigate with impunity.

Last July, the US was among a handful of states that failed to join a consensus on the treaty during the last hour of negotiations, saying "more time was needed" to complete the process. Now, the Obama administration has had that time.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must now work with other countries at the United Nations to close the deal on a robust, effective Arms Trade Treaty with the highest possible standards. The Arms Trade Treaty will not, by itself, prevent all illicit and irresponsible arms trafficking, but it will help reduce the enormous toll of armed conflict around the globe. 

Mr. Obama should join other leaders to finalize a treaty that outlaws arms deals where the exporter knows or should know that the weapons will be used to commit the world’s worst crimes. No country should be able to hide behind ambiguous international law to aid and abet genocide, crimes against humanity, serious war crimes, or a consistent pattern of serious human rights abuses.

The treaty should also require each country to assess the risks associated with an arms deal prior to transfer and be required to not transfer the weapons if there is a substantial risk that the arms will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights, the laws of war, or acts of terrorism.

The implementation of an Arms Trade Treaty based on this standard would prevent, or at least make it more difficult to justify, the ongoing supply of weapons to the Assad regime in Syria, for example. 

While the US has some of the strictest regulations governing the export and import of weapons, less than half of the countries in the world have any basic laws governing arms trade. That’s why the treaty must mandate that countries adopt and enforce comprehensive legal regime to regulate the import and export of all conventional weapons and ammunition. Arms dealers have no problem finding countries to base their operations and escape law enforcement. The treaty must close this lethal loophole.

The treaty must also avoid other loopholes – like the one sought by India and opposed by the US – that would exempt arms deals made under previous defense cooperation agreements from the treaty. And finally, the treaty should ensure that states make their reports on arms transfers available to the public to improve accountability.

The Arms Trade Treaty is about making it harder for irresponsible states and arms dealers to put profits ahead of people. It is a vital tool to help protect civilians, aid workers, and missionaries from the violence fueled by the illicit arms trade. Its time is now. 

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.

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