Ambitious conference seeks to hammer out global arms trade treaty

Story highlights

  • A U.N. conference on an unprecedented global arms trade treaty is under way
  • The Syrian crisis adds urgency to arms trade treaty negotiations
  • U.N. Secretary-General Ban stresses the need for common standards on arms trades
  • A human rights group calls the conference "a historic opportunity"
U.N. diplomats are in final negotiations this month on an unprecedented arms trade treaty that would clamp down on the flow of arms around the world.
Half a million people die every year from armed conflicts and armed violence in the world, almost one person every minute, according to Amnesty International.
Current international regulations are limited and do not force nations to gain approval for an international transfer of arms. Arms control activists say an effective treaty would seek high common international standards that curb the risk of arms and ammunition making their way into the illicit market.
In the ceremony opening the monthlong conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the absence of such common standards "has made it easier for conventional weapons to fuel armed conflict and crime, to commit acts of terror and to perpetrate political repression and grave human rights violations."
The uprising in Syria, which has left more than 14,000 people dead in the past 15 months, has added urgency to the conference.
"If we had a treaty in the past in place that would be governing the movement of weapons one way or another, into or out of Syria, would we have the situation we have now?" asked Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, in an interview with CNN.
Critics of the treaty point to its comprehensiveness as a fatal flaw and say that imposing the same monitoring standards on all countries regardless of their existing arms regulations or human rights records would be impractical.
"This is not a treaty that is going to clamp down on the arms trade, except for well-meaning democracies and well-meaning states," said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, in an interview with CNN.
The treaty has been in the works since 2006, when the U.N. General Assembly requested that all countries submit their views on a binding arms trade treaty. That year, the United States voted against the resolution that started the process, but that decision was later reversed by the Obama administration.
Many countries have voiced support for a robust arms treaty. The Finnish minister for foreign affairs, Erkki Tuomioja, at a press conference in New York on July 2, urged member states to unite behind an effort to regulate the global arms market, which is currently valued at more than $60 billion a year.
"I hope that the way we are seeing arms transfers without any transparency contributing to major crisis around the world should increase the commitment of everyone to get a strong treaty," he said. Finland is one of the co-authors of the resolution on the Arms Trade Treaty.
But the negotiations, which began Monday and will continue through July 27, are expected to be tough, according to arms control supporters, since the five permanent members of the Security Council are also among the leading weapons exporters. Among them are the United States, Russia and China, who are expected to push for clear provisions on what types of weapons and ammunition the treaty will cover when the final text will be discussed in the General Assembly.
Although supporters of the treaty expect friction on a number of issues during the negotiating process, the secretary general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, called the conference a "historic opportunity."
"We want to make sure arms don't reach the hands of governments who are potentially going to violate, or pose substantial risk of violating, human rights or humanitarian law. That's really what has to be stopped. It's in everybody's interest to have a common treaty which everybody has agreed to."
Even if negotiators overcome the diplomatic wrangling and reach an agreement in the end, each country would still have to win ratification back home for the arms treaty to go into effect.