Talks take aim at weapons trading

Keystone/AP Photo/Wally Santana

All United Nations member states, including Switzerland, are participating in negotiations to agree a legally binding instrument on international standards for the export and transfer of conventional arms.

This content was published on July 2, 2012 - 11:00
Rita Emch in New York,

The conference, being held in New York from July 2-27, will include all major producers, exporters and importers of conventional arms.

It is hoped the resulting treaty would make the international arms trade more responsible, help alleviate human suffering and curb the illicit trade in arms and weapons.

Crucial for the outcome of the negotiations will be the positions of countries such as the United States, Russia and China, all of whom have reservations about certain aspects.

Diplomats and non-governmental organisations are hoping for a robust treaty, even if not all states end up signing it.

In this regard they are referring to the impact of the treaty on banning anti-personnel mines. Even though big producer countries have not adhered to the Ottawa treaty, production and use of these mines are becoming less frequent since the adoption of the convention.

No globally binding rules

While the world trade in many goods such as exotic woods, dinosaur bones or bananas is covered by binding regulations, no such rules exist with regards to the international trade in conventional arms.

“Many people are just shocked when they hear this,” Jeff Abramson, director of the Control Arms campaign told

Control Arms is a global civil society alliance that has been campaigning for an arms trade treaty for years.

Amnesty International, one of the alliance’s founding members, summarises the ramifications of this lack of regulation: every minute somewhere in the world someone dies in a war, from excessive use of weapons violence or because of a crime – more than half a million people a year.

Possible stumbling blocks

A few days before the start of the conference, Abramson was taking a cautiously optimistic stand.

“Looking at it under a longer time-frame we’re at a good point now. There’s a lot of energy around,” he said. Sure, a lot of work remains to be done, “but major arms producer countries are on board”.

He pointed out that there were open questions and sceptics among the countries. Among them the United States, which has reservations about the inclusion of ammunition in the accord. Or Russia and China with their reservations regarding human rights protection and how this should have an impact on the approval of arms transfer requests.

The current example of Syria, Abramson said, showed the importance of curbing the irresponsible trade in arms on a global level.

“Now, Russia just points out that there is no United Nations arms embargo against Syria, therefore, their reasoning goes, no rules are broken.”

“Golden Rule”

“For us it is essential that the protection of human rights and international humanitarian law stands at the centre of the treaty. We call it the ‘Golden Rule’ with which those rights must be protected,” he said.

This rule must bind all states to analyse whether arms transferred to another state are likely to be used for serious human rights abuses. If that is the case, there can be no approval for a requested transfer.

Some states have expressed reservations about those human rights safeguards.

“It's all about the formulation,” Abramson said. For Control Arms there’s no question: in case of a risk of human rights violations any export approval must be denied and the formulation must therefore include the words “shall not”. China and Russia and most Middle Eastern Countries opt for less stringent wording.

The alliance wants to see a comprehensive treaty that incorporates all kinds of conventional arms and weaponry as well as a system for registering all arms deals and a control mechanism.

If the conference comes to a decision by consensus, with a common denominator that is not too weak, the alliance would consider the accord a “first big step, with further steps to come”, Abramson said.

Small arms and light weapons

“Switzerland is among those states with ambitious goals for a strong and efficient treaty. We want an accord that is transparent, non-discriminatory and universal,” Serge Bavaud, expert for security and military questions at Switzerland’s Mission to the United Nations in New York, told

A central aspect of the treaty is the standards to be set for any transnational transfers. The treaty should make reference to the UN Charter and Switzerland wants approval for exporting or transferring arms to be given only if there is no danger that these arms will lead to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

The Swiss also want clear and transparent obligations for national implementation of the treaty’s rules in the individual states.

“From our point of view it is very important that the small arms and light weapons are included,” Bavaud said, because those were the weapons harming civilians most often.

“If those weapons are not part of the accord, its values will be strongly limited.”

Switzerland and the arms trade treaty

Within the UN framework, Switzerland has been active in the process for an arms trade treaty since 2006.

It was a member of a group of experts from 28 countries that handled the preliminary work and later participated in all preparatory rounds of negotiations.

Based on an arms export legislation considered to be among the strictest in the world and due to its humanitarian tradition, Switzerland was able to play a "competent and credible" part in the negotiations. That it received a seat as one of the vice-presidents in the bureau of the arms trade treaty conference can be seen as recognition of the Swiss engagement.

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Arms Trade: Facts and figures

In 2010, the 100 largest armament corporations had been selling arms and military equipment worth more than $400 billion (SFr387 billion).

According to the International Peace Institute SIPRI in Stockholm, the international trade in arms has grown by about 25% over the past four years.

The main reason for this growth is the rising demand for weapons by emerging countries. Today, India is the biggest importer of weapons, followed by South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore.

The world's biggest weapons suppliers are the US, Russia, Germany, Britain and France. Those five countries are responsible for about three-quarters of all arms sales.

One aspect of the unregulated arms trade market is the issue of corruption. A study by Transparency International estimated that about 40% of corruption in global trade was linked to the arms trade.  

(Source: Agencies)

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