The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Shutting off the tap – regulating the global arms trade

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The global arms market is out of control and there is probably no multilateral initiative more important to prevent mass violence and human rights abuse in fragile states than to address this scourge.

Thanks to a massive global  campaign and strong US support, a global arms trade treaty is moving forward.  The question is when it will happen and how strong it will be.  Photo by Crispin Hughes/Oxfam
Thanks to a massive global campaign and strong US support, a global arms trade treaty is moving forward. The question is when it will happen and how strong it will be. Photo by Crispin Hughes/Oxfam

Next week at the United Nations, governments and civil society representatives will gather for the latest round of discussion toward a global arms trade treaty (ATT), aiming to close a gaping hole in international law. One of the signature characteristics of the numerous fragile countries where Oxfam provides humanitarian relief is the failure of governments to control their own territory. In such environments, armed groups at times provide security for populations and at other times prey on populations for financial and political gain.

In places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the lack of accountability and effective security institutions has enabled all parties to the conflict to perpetrate gross human rights abuse with impunity. Regaining civility in these contexts is one of the most vexing problems governments and the international community faces and requires a variety of approaches.

It is clear that no effort to regain civility in fragile and conflict affected countries will succeed unless arms flows are addressed. At a 2007 Oxfam event, the former UN Commander in the DRC described his efforts to address the armed groups destabilizing the country as “mopping the floor when the tap was open. One moment you disarm a group, and then a week later the same group has fresh arms and ammunition.”

To address the arms issue a global approach is required. At least 95 percent of Africa’s most commonly used conflict weapons (the Kalashnikov and its derivatives) come from outside the continent. The global arms market is out of control and there is probably no multilateral initiative more important to prevent mass violence and human rights abuse in fragile states than to address this scourge.

But why do so many weapons end up in conflict zones and in the hands of warlords?

While many governments effectively control weapons leaving their country, many do not. Dozens of countries lack even the basic legal and regulatory structures required to stop weapons from flowing out of their borders and into the hands of war criminals. Because the global trade in conventional weapons is managed by a patchwork system of national laws and agreements, massive loopholes exist. Unscrupulous arms dealers, such as the notorious Viktor Bout now on trial in New York, are experts at exploiting this weak system and providing weapons to warlords and criminals globally.

At the same time, some countries transfer weapons to countries knowing full well that there is a clear risk that such weapons will be used to destabilize regions, perpetrate human rights abuse, and undermine development processes. Part of the problem is that governments see arms sales as important recession-proof source of revenue and an important tool for gaining alliances. Arms sales to responsible militaries and police forces are appropriate and arguably a necessary component of international relations. However, as we have seen this past week in Libya (where Europeans sold over $450 million in arms in 2009), arms sales to dangerous end-users can lead to horrific consequences. Unfortunately, there is no international law making it clear that selling weapons to places where there is a clear risk of abuse is illegal. Arms transfers to countries in conflict, to human rights abusers, and to repressive regimes may be ill-advised, but they if they are authorized under national legal systems and do not violate treaty requirements or United National Security Council imposed embargoes, such transfers are entirely legal.

As my colleague Louis Belanger wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this week, “the last few decades have seen the signing of a number of international agreements regulating the trade in many types of weapons — chemical, biological, nuclear — and most recently, banning specific types of weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions. However, there is still no truly international, legally binding instrument that regulates the ways that states trade the whole range of conventional weapons — broadly speaking, everything else — with each other. This includes weapons like tanks, attack helicopters, artillery as well as small arms — revolvers, rifles, carbines and machine guns designed for use by one person — which, along with ammunition, are responsible for most conflict-related deaths in recent decades. This led former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to dub small arms ‘the real weapons of mass destruction’.”

Oxfam has worked with allies to call for a global arms trade treaty since 2003 and a large Oxfam delegation (including yours truly) will attend the talks next week in New York. The process never would have happened if it wasn’t for a massive global campaign calling for the treaty between 2003-2006. However, the UN process leading to the ATT has been stuck in the slow lane of international diplomacy since 2006. The Bush administration opposed such efforts – joining Zimbabwe in lonely opposition of a 2008 UN vote starting the negotiating process. But the Obama administration changed course and supports the effort, though with some caveats. With strong US support, the question is no longer whether there will be a treaty, but when and how strong its provisions will be.

The Obama administration sees clear benefits to an ATT, such as an enhanced ability to encourage other states to refrain from irresponsible and illegal arms transfers and increased transparency on arms transfers. As such, the US administration is pushing for many critical items to be included in the Treaty. However, the US administration continues to see the initiative as primarily a treaty regulating global commerce and oppose certain provisions that Oxfam thinks are critical for human security, such as the inclusion of certain types of ammunition in the treaties scope and strong human rights provisions that would prohibit certain arms transfers.

While in New York next week, I will post blogs on specific issues being discussed. The agenda includes:

• what types of weapons will be in the scope of the treaty;
• criteria by which states assess whether a transfer should be authorized;
• international assistance to help states build effective arms export/import control systems.

The discussions will get technical at times and much of the time will likely be taken up by expert discussions on weapon systems and how transactions are facilitated. While those discussions are imperative, representatives from all governments convened at the UN headquarters over the next week must remember that their negotiations will have a profound impact on the lives of millions of vulnerable people held hostage by armed violence and act with the urgency these people deserve.

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