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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Arms Trade Treaty Effort Endorsed
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Wade Boese

UN member states recently overwhelmingly endorsed an effort to craft a treaty to regulate the international conventional arms trade. A final accord is by no means assured, however, as two dozen leading arms buyers and sellers abstained from the vote and the world’s top arms exporter, the United States, cast the sole dissent.

All told, 139 countries voted Oct. 26 for the so-called arms trade treaty resolution originally co-sponsored by Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. The vote occurred in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, which is an annual forum where governments debate measures on disarmament and international security matters. The General Assembly, which almost always replicates First Committee votes, is expected to give final approval to the resolution in early December.

Although various criteria-based proposals to limit global arms sales date back more than a decade, the current concept grew out of a September 2004 speech by then-British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. (See ACT, November 2004. ) Straw expounded on the initiative in March 2005, saying that weapons suppliers should “operate and trade in a way which is transparent, responsible, and accountable.”

The resolution calls for exploring a “comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” Conventional arms encompass weapons ranging from pistols and rifles to tanks and aircraft carriers.

Welcoming the vote Oct. 26, British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said a future treaty’s purpose is to “end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide.” There is no agreement yet on what standards should distinguish between responsible and irresponsible deals, although Beckett suggested criteria could include a potential importer’s “respect for human rights.”

Fifteen Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, published an open letter Oct. 24 outlining what a treaty should entail. They recommended suppliers weigh how exported weapons might be used prior to making transfers. Any weapons deals that could be used to “violate international law” should be denied, the laureates wrote.

The earliest that formal negotiations on the treaty could start is 2009. The resolution first calls on the UN secretary-general next year to obtain government views on the possible treaty and make a report. Taking that report into account, a group of governmental experts is supposed to convene in 2008 to “examine the feasibility, scope, and draft parameters” of an agreement.

Typically, some 20 experts make up such a group, and they meet for three separate sessions during the year. If they reach consensus on a report recommending negotiation of a treaty, UN members could then vote to start formal talks. In the event consensus cannot be achieved, governments could choose to establish another experts group, start negotiations outside the United Nations among like-minded countries, or drop the effort entirely.

Although its composition is not yet determined, the 2008 experts group could have difficulty reaching consensus because it will most likely include officials from the United States and countries that abstained from the October vote, notably China and Russia. All three have large stakes in the global arms market (see page 28 ) and are critical of the initiative. Yet, a U.S. government official told Arms Control Today Nov. 17 that the United States was the “only government that had the gumption to vote no.”

The United States contends the initiative will be expensive, time consuming, and of little utility because any final product, if there is one, will inevitably establish standards of the lowest common denominator. The U.S. official said that Washington fears that if such an instrument is completed, it would weaken efforts to get certain countries to improve their export controls or behavior if they already complied with some minimum standard.

A British official told Arms Control Today Nov. 16 that London agrees that an accord “based on the lowest common denominator would be of questionable value.” Therefore, the British government, according to the official, “is committed to securing an agreement that will make a real difference.” The official added that “whatever the terms of a treaty, it should not compel any country or group to adopt controls weaker than they currently operate.”

Similar to other major arms suppliers, the U.S. government historically has been reluctant to cede any authority over export decisions. After initiating arms sales restraint talks with other key weapons exporters in 1991, the United States agreed to ship up to 150 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan despite knowing that it would probably cause the talks to collapse, which they did. The Clinton administration then opposed for several years legislation to establish criteria for vetting U.S. arms exports. Most recently at a UN conference last summer, the Bush administration opposed barring small arms and light weapons exports to nonstate actors. (See ACT, September 2006. )

The Bush administration has opposed the arms trade treaty process in part because it could turn into a series of meetings spanning several years, similar to the UN-backed effort to curb illicit small arms and light weapons trafficking. While 172 countries voted at the recent First Committee for convening another small arms meeting by 2008, the United States stood alone in opposition. “What we don’t want is more meetings, but more action,” the U.S. official asserted.

Nonetheless, London intends to keep advocating the merits of an arms trade treaty to Washington. “The United Kingdom will continue to engage the United States on this issue and encourage it to participate as work progresses with the aim of securing its support for an eventual treaty,” the British official stated.