Late last month, UN officials confirmed that more than 100 Syrians—the majority women and children—were killed following artillery and tank shelling of civilians near the town of Haoula by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite the brutality of the Assad regime over the 15-month conflict in which some 10,000 Syrians have been killed, Russia, Iran, and possibly others continue to sell weapons to Damascus.
To uphold a proposed ceasefire and help prevent an all-out civil war, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging states not to arm either side in the Syrian conflict. Even as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian government “bears the main responsibility for what is going on,” yet another shipment of Russian arms is reported to have arrived in Syria.
The crisis in Syria underscores the urgent necessity of common-sense rules to prevent the international transfer of weapons, particularly when it is determined there is a substantial risk of human rights abuses or if the weapons are going to states under international arms embargoes.
Next month, a final round of multilateral negotiations could finally produce a legally binding global arms trade treaty (ATT). For the first time, this would establish common, legally binding standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.
Each year, thousands of civilians around the world are slaughtered by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and transferred by arms brokers to criminals and illegal militias. The enormous human toll of this cycle of violence undermines economic and social development and political stability in fragile regions, as well as international security.
According to a recent report published by Oxfam, more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition have been imported since 2000 by countries operating under 26 UN, regional, or multilateral arms embargoes in force during that time.
To succeed, the United States and other major weapons exporters, including Russia and China, need to put people over arms profiteering and play a constructive role in the upcoming negotiations to secure a treaty with the highest possible standards.
To be effective, an ATT should identify possible criteria for denial of international arms transfer licenses; this list should address human rights, security, and development concerns. A strong treaty should require member states to report regularly on their arms sales and purchases, transfer approvals, and license denials.
Under an effective ATT, states-parties would not authorize a transfer of conventional arms in contravention of UN arms embargoes or when there is a substantial risk the items will be used for serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law, as in the case of Syria.
A key question in the negotiations will be whether the treaty will require states to withhold such arms transfers or simply require that states take into account the potential risks associated with the transfer. The latter approach is simply not acceptable because it will allow many states to ignore existing international obligations and sidestep the basic standards outlined in an ATT.
An ATT also must apply to all types of international trade, transfers, and transactions in conventional weaponry and cover the broadest range of conventional arms possible, from military aircraft to small arms. The British government estimates that at least 400,000 people are killed by illegal small arms and light weapons each year. An ATT also should specifically require that national laws regulate the activities of international arms brokers and other intermediaries.
Negotiators must include ammunition in the scope of the treaty. The world is already full of guns. It is often the supply and resupply of ammunition that feeds and prolongs conflicts and armed violence. Even though the United States already licenses the import and export of ammunition, it has been reluctant to support the regulation of ammunition in an ATT. That position must change. The exclusion of ammunition from the scope of the treaty and from basic reporting requirements would greatly reduce its ability to achieve many of its most important goals.
Although even the most effective ATT cannot stop states from providing aid to regimes and armies that target civilians, such a treaty would make it much more difficult for states, such as Russia, to justify arms sales to the Assad regime and other rogue regimes and militias.
As British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has said, the treaty has “the potential to prevent human rights abuses, reduce conflict, and make the world a safer place.” No one, except maybe illicit arms dealers and human rights abusers, should oppose common-sense international law regulating the arms trade.
To help prevent the next humanitarian disaster fueled by the illicit arms trade, President Barack Obama and other global leaders should spare no effort to seize the historic opportunity to negotiate a robust, bulletproof ATT. ACT