In UN arms trade treaty debate, US signature may hinge on Brits

With the US reluctant to sign on to an arms trade treaty being negotiated this week at the UN, Britain – as both treaty advocate and major arms dealer – may be best positioned to sway its ally.

As the UN approaches its final day of talks over a comprehensive global treaty to regulate the $70 billion international conventional arms trade, several major stumbling blocks remain. One of those has been opposition from the US, whose domestic gun lobby and major share of global arms exports push against restrictions on weapons sales.

But as talks go down to the wire, a pivotal persuading influence on the US could yet come from a particularly close ally, major arms dealer in its own right, and the only one of the permanent five members on the UN security council to have consistently backed the arms treaty: the UK.

Ahead of the final day of talks at the UN’s New York headquarters on Thursday, the focus remains on achieving a treaty that would create an agreed standard for transfers of any type of conventional weapon – from pistols all the way through to to war planes – and require nations to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure munitions will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, and violations of humanitarian law.

Obstacles to the treaty have revolved around the position of major arms state exporters such as Russia, which has been attempting to revive its role in the international arms trade in recent years. Russia also shares Chinese concerns that a treaty could still allow for the arming of non-state actors seeking to overthrow regimes such as those governing some of China’s African client states.

The American gun lobby has meanwhile been a major factor in the thinking of the US, which is alone responsible for 30 percent of global arms exports and has been dragging its feet over the inclusion of ammunition imports in a treaty, as pressed for by rights groups and most UN member states.

But Britain may be able to bridge that gap. Though one of the world’s major arms exporters with aspirations of strengthening its weapons industry as a way of boosting its enfeebled economy, the UK has nonetheless advocated a strong treaty – as a way to bring the rest of the world toward its own strict weapons regulation.

What the UK can do "is make the argument to the US about bringing everyone up to the level of regulation that the US already has,” says Joanna Spear, an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University, arms trade expert, and visiting fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) defense think tank.

“That’s already one of the big reasons why representatives of major arms companies in Europe are actually in favor of this treaty. Their concern is that they are bound by stricter regulation than others are and that this has been a disadvantage, while US regulation has also been similarly strong."

And while domestic politics and gun control issues remain the major impediment to a comprehensive US embrace of a treaty, according to Ms. Spear the treaty's prospect has been strengthened by President Obama’s reelection and the reaction to the Newtown school massacre.

Diluted but inclusive or strong but exclusive?

The UK’s position on the treaty has been heavily influenced by lobbying from non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam, a UK charity concerned with global poverty. However, NGOs have been worried that a draft document put forward on Friday night suggests a watered-down treaty is being touted.

However, after a final draft was circulated Wednesday, some NGOs gave a qualified welcome to a text expected to be adopted Thursday.

“While there are still deficiencies in this final draft, this treaty has the potential to provide significant human rights protection and curb armed conflict and violence if all governments demonstrate the political will to implement it properly and develop it in the future,” Brian Wood, head of arms control and human rights at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“It’s also encouraging that the final draft forces states to assess the overriding risk of serious human rights violations – including summary killings, torture and enforced disappearances – before allowing arms transfers to go ahead. We expect all states to ratify the treaty promptly after it is adopted and implement this provision in good faith."

There was still disappointment among NGOs that the scope of the treaty remains limited in terms of what types of arms should be covered.

Amnesty on Monday welcomed the draft's proposed ban on weapons being transferred to countries known for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. But the group also claimed that the draft treaty would fail to prevent arms going to states where there is a substantial risk the arms will be used to commit summary killings or facilitate torture.

Another UK NGO, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), also expressed concerns on Monday. Its director of policy, Iain Overton, used Twitter from New York to accuse the president of the conference, Australia’s UN ambassador Peter Woolcott, of not listening to calls for a strong treaty “because he wants a consensus at whatever price.”

“Clearly one would want to see maximum sign-up around the world, but at the same time, does one trade off maximum sign-up for a diluted treaty that is so lacking in values that it is not worth the paper it is written on?” says Steven Smith, AOAV’s chief executive, who is in London.

Another argument holds that it is necessary to cut away elements of the treaty in order to bring key players onside. “For example, the argument for having the US in, and perhaps doing so by cutting away ammunition, is that it is the dominant player in the conventional arms trade these days and has got such a lock on trade,” says Spear. 

Even if the conference fails to reach a consensus, however, delegates say they can put it to a vote in the UN General Assembly to rescue it. Either way, if a treaty is approved, national legislatures will need to ratify it.

Meanwhile, advocates of a strong treaty cite the escalating conflict in Syria as evidence of the high stakes at work in New York.

“The Russians have been taking the stance that where there already contracts in place, they should override any humanitarian consequences of transfer,” says AOAV’s Mr. Smith.

“That in my view is entirely against the spirit of what is trying to be achieved here. What we are saying is: ‘Look guys, wake up and smell the coffee. This is how these weapons are being used and the fact that you have signed a contract two years or five years ago or whatever else, surely your humanitarian principles and common sense will cause you to override that.'”

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