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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations Begin July 2
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Volume 3, Issue 9, June 30, 2012

Thousands of civilians around the globe are slaughtered each year by weapons that are sold, transferred by governments or diverted to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups.

In response to this global problem, diplomats from the United States and over 100 other countries will meet at the United Nations in New York for four weeks beginning on Monday July 2 to try to hammer out a legally-binding, global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The goal is to establish common standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.

The Arms Trade Treaty won't stop all illicit arms transfers, but it has the potential to significantly and positively change behavior by requiring states to put in place basic regulations and follow common sense criteria that reduce irresponsible international arms transfers and and hold arms suppliers more accountable for their actions.

The Unregulated Global Trade In Arms

The conflict in Syria--like recent wars in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Congo--underscores the urgent necessity of common-sense rules to prevent the international transfer of weapons when it is determined there is a substantial risk of human rights abuses or if the weapons are going to states under arms embargoes.

An unregulated arms trade increases the availability of weapons in conflict zones. Arms brokers can exploit these conditions to sell weapons to criminals and insurgents, including those fighting U.S. troops.

According to a recent report published by Oxfam, more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition has been imported since 2000 by countries operating under arms embargoes. The figures show the extent to which states have been flagrantly flouting the 26 UN, regional, or multilateral arms embargoes in force during this period.

While the United States and a few other countries have relatively tough regulations governing the trade of weapons, many countries have weak or ineffective regulations, if they have any at all. Making matters worse, only 52 of the world's 192 governments have laws regulating arms brokers; less than half of these have criminal or monetary penalties associated with illegal brokering.

This patchwork of national laws and the absence of clear international standards allows irresponsible arms brokers to operate in the black holes of the international regulatory system and circumvent the jurisdiction of countries like the United States.

Amazingly, there are more international laws on the trade of bananas than conventional weapons, like AK-47s.

An Historic Opportunity

Human rights, development, security, and religious organizations across the globe are working together to press key governments--particularly the United States--to act and to act responsibly on the ATT during the July 2-27 talks.

To help prevent the next humanitarian disaster fueled by the illicit arms trade, they are pressing President Obama and other global leaders should spare no effort to seize the historic opportunity to negotiate a robust, bulletproof ATT.

In a letter to President Obama delivered last month, the organizations call on the U.S. government to secure a treaty "with the highest possible standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms."

The letter was endorsed by leaders representing 51 human rights, development, religious, and security organizations, including: Amnesty International USA; Arms Control Association; Friends Committee on National Legislation; Human Rights Watch; NAACP; Oxfam America; National Association of Evangelicals; and others.

ATT campaigners will soon deliver a global petition at the UN calling on states to negotiate an effective global Arms Trade Treaty.

Key Issues

To ensure an effective treaty, the United States and other key states must reach agreement on:

  • Strong Criteria Explicitly Linked to Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law--The ATT must prevent states from transferring conventional arms in contravention of UN arms embargoes and when it is determined there is a substantial risk the items will be used for serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law.
  • Comprehensive Coverage--The ATT must apply to the broadest range of conventional arms possible--from military aircraft to small arms--as well as all types of international trade, transfers, and transactions in conventional weaponry. To help prevent "merchants of death" like the notorious Vicktor Bout, the ATT should also specifically require that national laws regulate the activities of international arms brokers and other intermediaries.
  • Include Ammunition in the Scope of the Treaty--The world is already full of guns. It is the constant flows of ammunition that feeds and prolongs conflicts and armed violence. The exclusion of ammunition from the scope of the treaty would greatly reduce its ability to achieve many of its most important goals.

U.S. officials have said the administration supports the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the treaty. On ammunition, Ann Ganzer, director of the Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction at the Department of State said: "We do not have a problem with the regulation of ammunition. The United States licenses the manufacturing, import, and export of ammunition. The issue comes in with some of the other requirements of the treaty--reporting requirements."

Myths and Realities

Unfortunately, here in the United States, the value of an ATT has been obscured by the misleading lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association and its proxies in Congress who allege that the still-to-be-negotiated treaty will clash with legal firearms possession in the United States. That is not the case.

Second Amendment Nonsense: Some of these concerns are reflected in 2010 letters circulated by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and signed by 55 other senators. Although both letters recognize the security and humanitarian benefits of the treaty, the Moran letter expresses concern that the ATT might monitor certain internal arms transfers.

Such measures are undeniably outside the scope of the treaty and the Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it opposes any infringement on national arms transfer and ownership.

Allegations that an ATT would infringe on the right of U.S. citizens to legally possess firearms amount to irresponsible demagoguery.

As Galen Carey, Director of Government Relations for the National Association for Evangelicals puts it: "Some critics claim--wrongly, in my view--that an Arms Trade Treaty would threaten our second amendment rights.  In fact, the framework for the treaty negotiations specifically excludes any restrictions on domestic gun sales or ownership.  This issue is a red herring."

The 2009 UN General Assembly resolution establishing the ATT negotiation process explicitly acknowledges the exclusive right of states "to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections."

The Arms Trade Treaty will level the playing field by keeping unscrupulous operators in other countries from doing what our laws already prohibit.    

Advocates of legal civilian gun possession should recognize the value of an ATT in reducing the carnage created by illicit and irresponsible international arms transfers.

Small Arms and the ATT: A second concern expressed by Sen. Moran is the likely the inclusion of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition within the scope of the treaty. Moran claims this makes the treaty too "broad" and therefore unenforceable.

This argument ignores the fact that the U.S. government already controls the export and import of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition. It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that other states are required to follow similar practices. The Obama administration--and the vast majority of other states--are on record in support of including small arms and light weapons in the scope of the treaty.

Time to Come Together Around a Common Sense ATT

Congress should support the Obama administration's effort to secure an effective Arms Trade Treaty that raises the arms transfer standards of other states closer to those of the United States.

No one, except maybe illicit arms dealers and human rights abusers, should oppose common-sense international law regulating the arms trade.

Additional Resources

  • "If You Resist, We'll Shoot You," Amnesty International report on arms suppliers fueling killings and rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 12, 2012.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.