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– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
British Call for Arms Trade Treaty

Wade Boese

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said Sept. 30 that the United Kingdom would work to build support for a treaty on the international arms trade, although he provided few details about what London envisioned.

Speaking at the annual conference of London’s ruling Labour Party, Straw appeared to be making a case for an accord focused on small arms, such as rifles, machine guns, and mortars. He noted that these types of arms, not “sophisticated high tech weapons,” are behind the “carnage and the terror” being perpetrated in the Darfur region of Sudan, where government forces have joined with Arab militias to attack and displace hundreds of thousands of black Africans. “Greater international action is therefore needed to tackle the plague of small arms in Africa and elsewhere,” Straw declared.

Straw referenced a 1998 European Union arms sales code of conduct in his speech, suggesting this could be one possible model for a future treaty. Under the EU code, participating countries are supposed to weigh their proposed arms deals against a set of eight criteria, such as an importing government’s human rights record, before agreeing to an export. The criteria are not legally binding, however, and a government is free to pursue whatever deals it ultimately desires. (See ACT, May 1998.)

A British diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Oct. 6 that the scope of Straw’s initiative remains to be worked out. The official speculated that the United Kingdom would likely use its 2005 presidency of the Group of Eight and its EU presidency over the second half of next year as platforms to push the new arms trade proposal.

The international community has had little success in limiting the conventional arms trade. The so-called Big Five talks between China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on regulating weapons transfers in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War limped along for little more than a year. A September 1992 U.S. announcement to sell 150 F-16 fighter aircraft to China’s rival Taiwan dealt a deathblow to the already stalled negotiations.

A 2001 United Nations conference on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons fared little better after Washington ruled out any provisions affecting civilian gun ownership or arms transfers to nonstate actors. (See ACT, September 2001.) One tangible result of the conference, however, is ongoing negotiations on an instrument to facilitate the tracing of small arms worldwide. A first round of talks took place in June, and two more are set for next year.