The United States has relatively robust regulations governing international transfers of conventional arms and ammunition, but many other countries have weak or ineffective laws and policies, if they have any at all. In the absence of common international standards and national export controls, arms suppliers and brokers exploit the gaps for profit, allowing arms and ammunition to flow to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups.
That can and must change. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman was on target when he said in April that there must be “a new sense of responsibility upon every member of the United Nations that you cannot simply export and forget.”
With U.S. support, UN member states agreed to convene July 2-27 for a diplomatic conference to conclude a global arms trade treaty (ATT) to require national regulations and commonsense standards for arms transfers. Overcoming considerable challenges, the negotiators came very close, but not close enough, to consensus.
After many days and long nights of talks, diplomats from arms-exporting and -importing countries were coalescing around a draft 12-page agreement issued July 26. Most diplomats expected that, with some minor adjustments, a final text would be adopted on the final day.
Hopes were dashed when the United States announced it still had concerns and needed more time to address them. The U.S. move provided cover for Russia and a few others to join the call for delay. Without the active support of the world’s largest arms producer and exporter—$31 billion in U.S. foreign military sales in fiscal year 2011 and $63 billion so far in 2012—the conference could not reach agreement.
The decision by Washington to pull back from the diplomatic finish line surprised many, especially given that the U.S. delegation succeeded in pressing other countries to support its key positions and avoid U.S. redlines. In addition, none of the remaining concerns cited by the U.S. team are core issues.
More than 90 countries, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, declared in a statement, “We had expected to adopt such a draft Treaty today. Compromises have had to be made, but overall the text…put forward yesterday has the overwhelming support of the international community.”
The July 26 draft treaty text would prohibit arms transfers to states for the purpose of facilitating the commission of acts of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity and obligate states not to authorize arms transfers if they determine there is an “overriding risk” that the transfer will be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations. A compromise formula would require that states establish national export regulations that guard against the irresponsible export of ammunition.
Clearly, the July 26 draft is imperfect. For instance, the list of conventional weapons should be more comprehensive; the requirements for regulating arms dealers should be stronger; the prohibitions on transfers that could lead to human rights abuses should be strengthened; and the reporting requirements should be more robust. Nevertheless, the proposed treaty would help reduce enormous human suffering caused by irresponsible international arms transfers and arms brokering.
The momentum toward a sound ATT must not be lost. The majority of states are determined to move the discussion to the UN General Assembly this fall and to secure an effective treaty as soon as possible. Doing so will not be easy and will require stronger leadership.
The failure of the Obama administration to muster the political will to close the deal on a sound ATT has undermined U.S. credibility on the issue. With the General Assembly due to take up the ATT issue this fall, Washington may have also lost much of its influence and its veto power. Unlike the ATT conference, which required consensus, the General Assembly can adopt resolutions by a two-thirds majority.
With small adjustments to the July 26 text, key ATT backers may move to win UN endorsement of the treaty or, at the very least, reconvene another diplomatic conference designed to quickly adopt a final treaty. The goal must be to prevent key states from once again standing in the way of a strong ATT as well as to conclude an agreement that will be signed by United States, along with other key arms suppliers and buyers.
An ATT has the potential to fill a huge gap in the international security architecture and help protect innocent civilians. The treaty cannot stop all irresponsible and illicit arms transfers, but it can make it substantially more difficult and more expensive for weapons buyers and suppliers to flout commonsense standards.
As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued in a July speech, the United States “can directly pressure those who organize atrocities and cut off the resources they need to continue their violence.” To translate those words into action, Washington must help, not hinder, the conclusion of an effective ATT.