Uphill battle for arms treaty

The U.N. General Assembly in an overwhelming vote on April 2 adopted a treaty that will regulate transactions of conventional weapons to prevent them from being used for genocide, terrorism and the suppression of human rights.

The Arms Trade Treaty came into shape 18 years after Nobel Peace Prize winners, nongovernmental organizations and international law scholars first called for forming such a treaty. It took seven years of negotiations for the United Nations to adopt the treaty.

So far, there have been international mechanisms to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons and biological and chemical weapons. There has not been such a mechanism for conventional weapons.

The Arms Trade Treaty is significant in that it is the first treaty to regulate global trade of conventional arms. But it is uncertain whether it will become an effective treaty even if it takes effect. This is because there is the possibility that the United States, Russia and China — the world’s largest weapons exporters — may not ratify the treaty.

Japan and other members of the international community should make strenuous efforts to persuade them to ratify the treaty. It may be effective to directly appeal to public opinion in the U.S. and raise Americans’ awareness of the importance of the treaty. Nineteen countries, including Japan, the U.S., Britain, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, Nigeria and New Zealand, proposed the treaty.

It is said that some 500,000 people become victims of conventional weapons annually, especially in conflict zones and areas where public security is poor. In the final phase of the negotiations for the Arms Trade Treaty, the proposing countries noted that one person is killed every minute worldwide as a result of violence due to the use of conventional weapons.

This reminder helped the U.N. member countries approve the treaty. Global trade of conventional weapons reportedly reaches $70 billion (about ¥6.8 trillion) annually.

Of the 193 U.N. member countries, 154 voted for the treaty while three countries voted against it and 23 others abstained. It will go into effect if it is ratified by 50 countries. That is expected to take a few years.

The treaty covers tanks, armed vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons.

Parties to the treaty are to make records of their weapons exports and submit them to the treaty secretariat. If it is found that weapons transactions violate the U.N. arms embargo or that weapons will be used for genocide, direct attacks on civilians or crimes against humanity, the export and import and other movements of the weapons will be prohibited.

If it is found that weapons transactions will violate international accords against terrorism or international criminal organizations, the export of the weapons will be banned.

Although the U.S., which accounts for 30 percent of the world’s weapons exports, voted for the treaty, the prospect of its ratification by the U.S. Senate is not good because of strong lobbying by the gun industry. The National Rifle Association, an extremely influential gun lobby, is determined to oppose the ratification.

Russia and China, responsible for 26 percent and 5 percent of the world’s weapons exports, respectively, abstained from voting, thus there is a strong possibility that they will not ratify the treaty either. Given the poor prospects of ratification by the three countries that together account for more than 60 percent of global weapons exports, the future of the treaty is bleak.

Russia, which has been providing weapons to the Syrian government embroiled in civil war, has expressed dissatisfaction with the treaty for its lack of a provision to prohibit weapons exports to nonstate entities, such as anti-government forces in Syria. But Moscow should take into serious consideration the fact that the civil war in Syria has already cost the lives of more than 70,000 people.

On the day following the U.N. adoption of the treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country’s weapons exports registered a 12 percent increase in 2012 and called for the further expansion of weapons exports. These remarks defy the spirit of the treaty.

If the U.S. eventually ratifies the treaty but Russia and China refuse to do so, it means that the treaty will not cover about 30 percent of the world’s weapons exports. This would still seriously undermine the effectiveness of the treaty.

The three countries that voted against the treaty are Syria, North Korea and Iran. It is reported that North Korea and Iran are cooperating in the development of missiles. Iran is supporting the Syrian government in the civil war. The international community should exert pressure on these countries to support the treaty and abide by international rules.

India, which is reportedly the world’s No. 1 weapons importer, joined the camp that abstained from the voting, which included Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. India, which perceives military threats from Pakistan and China but enjoys high economic growth, is pushing for the rapid modernization of its weapons.

The treaty itself has loopholes. Its regulations of weapons parts and ammunition are weak. It also fails to cover gifts, leases and loans of weapons. Although the treaty cannot be amended for six years after it takes effect, efforts should be made to close such loopholes.

There is no denying that the Arms Trade Treaty has serious flaws, but if it can reduce exports and imports of weapons to some extent, thus curbing tragic deaths from the use of conventional weapons, then it will be a success. Efforts should continue to persuade the U.S., Russia and China to ratify the treaty.

  • IAF101

    The Arms trade Treaty has “loopholes” in its very concept. You cannot “legislate” away violent conflicts or violence. Conventional weapons like assault rifles, mortars, mines etc are more than 70-80 years old technology that is today made in every corner of the world. Even Mexican drug dealers have “armored cars”, “submarines” etc built by their own engineers because these technologies are very simple and available openly. Plus you don’t need the latest weapons to cause widespread violence and death, as demonstrated by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Violent conflict and human rights abuses would be better avoided through active UN enforcement of basic human rights through force and international arbitration.

    • True, but the warlords in Africa who provide weapons to child soliders have little understanding of the technology that makes them work, you’re only talking about a tiny percentage that would be able to engineer such weapons.
      Enforcement of basic human rights world wide is a far bigger task then the UN is currently able to achieve. My main concern with the treaty is the inability for nonstate groups to rise against oppressive grovernments, and it is this that the UN needs to concentrate its efforts.