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.
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.
In the coming months and years, the treaty will effect important changes in the international arms trade. It will help prevent irresponsible arms trading by stigmatizing transfers to war criminals.
For the first time ever, the Arms Trade Treaty prohibits arms transfer authorizations to countries if the exporter "has the knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes."
The treaty requires arms exporters to meet certain criteria before authorizing transfers of conventional weapons or the export of ammunition and weapons parts and components. These standards require exporting countries to take human rights into account, and the treaty requires that governments are more transparent about their arms transfers and decisions about them.
Such standards are nothing new for the United States and have been a part of US arms export law and practice for years. 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 treaty effectively internationalizes the US export control system and requires signatories to adopt the same standards met by the US defense industry. When implemented, the treaty will go a long way to ensuring that conventional arms do not end up in the hands of oppressive governments or irresponsible end-users.
The treaty will also provide a new forum for international cooperation and assistance to help other countries develop their national export control system. The US already provides assistance to do just that as part of the Export Control and Border Security program run by the State Department.
The US signature on the arms treaty is also politically significant because it will put pressure on other key arms sellers and buyers, including Russia, China, and India, to sign the treaty. There is now growing momentum behind the treaty, which requires ratification by 50 countries to enter into force. That will, in turn, trigger national implementation steps for treaty members that can cut down on irresponsible and illicit arms transfers that threaten civilians and contribute to human rights abuses. Over time, the treaty will help tip the scales in favor human rights and human security when countries consider arms sales.
The treaty, of course, cannot stop all irresponsible and illicit arms transfers, but it can make it substantially more difficult and more expensive for weapons buyers and suppliers to flout commonsense standards. And for the many women, children, and families in countries caught up in conflict and bloodshed – that can make all the difference.
This treaty has the potential to fill a huge gap in the international security architecture and help protect innocent civilians. It deserves the full support of Mr. Obama, Congress, and the American people.
Rachel Stohl is senior associate at the Stimson Center and served as consultant to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs for the Arms Trade Treaty for five years. Daryl Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.