One of the under-reported news stories of the year so far is the UN’s vote for a global arms treaty last month. It’s hugely necessary, it has been blocked endlessly by shameless self-interest, and it’s a global first. Finally, weapons will be subject to the kind of international agreement that governs the trade of almost any goods you care to mention. There will be international agreement on who you can and can’t export weapons to, some agreed standards of who is a legitimate customer and who isn’t, and much needed reporting on what is being sent where.
The next step is for countries to go home and ratify the agreement through their own governments. Given the level of support for the measure – a yes vote of 154 to 3 – it shouldn’t be too hard to get quorum. (The three opposing countries were Iran, Syria and North Korea. 23 countries abstained.)
Big obstacles remain. The US is one. The arms trade treaty (ATT) failed last year, largely because there was a US election coming up and Obama couldn’t risk antagonising gun fans at home. He can safely support it now, but getting it through the House is another matter. Despite the fact that it’s about international arms flows, Republican senators and gun lobbyists are already describing the treaty as some kind of constitutional apocalypse.
Articles such as this one demonstrate the level of hysteria. “Of particular concern is a requirement that ATT signatories agree to establish a ‘national control system’” says the author, “to monitor, track and regulate everything from tanks to gunships to small arms—and their parts.” If he had bothered to read the actual document, he might have read the four words that follow ‘national control system’: “Each State Party shall establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the EXPORT of ammunition/munitions”. Let me just go back and put the word ‘export’ in bold. And italics. And underline it. And put it in caps.
The treaty affirms the the use of weapons “for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities, where such trade, ownership and use are permitted or protected by law”. It also states in black and white that it has no say over how countries regulate gun ownership within their own territories. It even affirms the right to “individual or collective self-defence”, that ‘individual’ surely inserted by the US delegation.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the treaty will have to go ahead without the US, the world’s leading arms exporter, much as the Kyoto agreement had to soldier on without the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 at the time.
Another problem is that the agreement is unable to address one of the deepest issues around the arms trade, the economic dependency on the arms industry. This ‘military-industrial complex‘, as Eisenhower put it, is the merging of political power and commercial arms sales so that militarization is in the interests of the state. Britain’s arms exporters are considered vital to the health of the economy, and the government is active in touting weapons around the world.
We know where this leads: anti-Gaddafi protestors were chased down the streets by British-made armoured cars. Teargas fired at protestors in Tahir Square read ‘made in USA’. Commercial interest leads us to support regimes that we would hesitate to support politically.
As the Campaign Against the Arms Trade point out, as long as a thriving arms trade is considered an economic imperative, any international arms treaty will be too weak to genuinely stop the export of weapons to oppressive regimes. That’s why today has been designated as a day of action on military spending, with campaigners highlighting Britain’s bloated military budget in an era of austerity.
Still, whatever the limitations of the treaty itself and despite the vested interests, the signing of the treaty is an important moment. It is a step towards a more peaceful world, the global community taking responsibility for conventional weapons and the harm they cause. Without being naïve about its limitations, it’s still a hopeful development.