activism human rights

Time for an international arms treaty

Why are countries still supplying the Assad regime with weapons? How does the insurgency in Iraq arm itself? Who sells Joseph Kony his AK-47s? Who is still authorising all those shipments of weapons to Sudan or Somalia? Why do dictators find it so easy to get hold of the weapons that keep them in power?

These are sensible questions, and ones that the international community has avoided in a decades-long silence on arms trading. There are international treaties for all sorts of things, from biodiversity protection to pharmaceutical copyrighting, but none for weapons. There are national guidelines and laws, but at the international level there are more rules governing the trade of bananas than there are for guns and ammunition.

As a consequence, it’s very easy to buy military hardware, whoever you are – including dictators, rebel factions, and terrorists. This unregulated flow of arms fuels conflicts around the world, and arms traders have an vested interest in prolonging those conflicts. There is a terrible human cost to all of this, and it holds back development too. As a continent, Africa loses an estimated 15% of GDP to armed conflict, a sum roughly equivalent to total aid transfers to the region.

An international arms treaty would begin to put this right. It would give clear guidelines to limit arms transfers to regimes under sanctions. It would be illegal to supply weapons to countries where they are likely to be used for genocidal purposes, or for terrorism, or organised crime. There would be clear lines of accountability to protect legitimate defence contracts. At present UN arms embargoes aren’t binding, but there would be now be consequences for those countries that choose to break them.

The good news is that this treaty is being discussed right now. After years of stalled talks and delays, UN talks are into their third week and due to finish on Friday.

The bad news is that there is very strong opposition from some quarters, and it is likely that any treaty that survives the consensus process will be so weak that it won’t make any difference.

There are no prizes for guessing who’s blocking the process. In 2006, when the treaty discussion was first proposed, there was only one country that voted no. A host of dubious regimes such as Syria, Iran and Libya chose to abstain, as did Russia and China. The no vote that sunk the talks came from the USA.

Why? Because the US is the world’s largest arms exporter, accounting for 40% of global arms trading. It will cost them more than anyone else, and American companies will have to deal with a lot of new paperwork to make their businesses transparent. The US also has a profound cultural love affair with the gun, and a deep-rooted suspicion of the UN.

The Obama administration overturned the 2006 vote in 2009, allowing the treaty negotiations to get this far. Whether they will get any further remains to be seen. Obama has an election to win. Even the most watered-down treaty would be rejected on principle by much of the Senate, which would have to ratify it. The gun lobby will be out in force to resist it, even though it deals with international arms trades and its influence on domestic gun owners would be minimal.

This is sad, because the point of the arms treaty is to limit weapons transfers to illegitimate regimes, and stop weapons falling into the wrong hands. The US has as much to gain from this as anyone.

It’s hard to be optimistic about the international arms treaty, no matter how obvious and common-sense it may be. There is too many vested interest, too much paranoia and self-defeating protectionism. But, we have got as far as the discussion stage, and we have to take this one step at a time. This step is to make sure this week’s talks sign off on a treaty fit for purpose – you can petition the British negotiators to argue for a strong treaty here, and the US version is here.


  1. ‘It will cost them more than anyone else’ and ‘The US has as much to gain from this as anyone’. Are these two, from your post, not showing the, all too common, long term overall human benefit sold for the short term benefit of financial gain? (Sad indeed, but as you say, ‘one step at a time’).

    1. Exactly, there’s an financial cost, but huge dividends to be had in a safer and more stable world. Sadly, if you’re the one making the guns, there’s more money to be made if it remains dangerous.

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