The broad support for regulating trade in conventional arms is an acknowledgement of its devastating effects on human rights

An overwhelming majority of 157 countries, including the United States and China, have voted to finalise next March a global treaty to regulate the billion-dollar trade in conventional weapons. Significantly, not a single country opposed the resolution to combat the proliferation of illicit arms in the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee and Russia was the lone major exporting power to abstain from the vote. The development reflects an emerging consensus that despite the legitimate requirements of defence cooperation among countries, weapons transfers ought to be subject to greater multilateral supervision in view of their devastating consequences for human lives and livelihood.

Needless controversy

Under the proposed global convention, governments are expected to agree to cease transfers of arms and ammunition where there are risks that countries are likely to deploy them for human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. This is Amnesty International’s Golden Rule, requiring all states to carry out a rigorous risk assessment of unauthorised use and potential rights violations. Predictably, attempts to incorporate basic principles of the rule of law was resisted both by the big arms exporting countries such as the U.S., China, and Russia, as well as autocratic regimes in Africa and Asia. However, any attempt to harmonise a global law on the trade in lethal weapons with broad human rights principles is unexceptionable. Such moves are in fact consistent with the spirit underlying established procedures that democratic states have in place to not extradite terror suspects to countries where torture is routinely applied during trials.

The other controversy in the negotiations relates to the nature and scope of arms that should be subject to controls. Civil society campaigns have strongly advocated coverage of the entire range of conventional weapons, including small arms and light weapons (SALW) and related ammunition under the treaty. Their claim that a much larger proportion of casualties in modern-day armed conflict are caused by SALW is too compelling to be overlooked. Although the Obama administration reversed the earlier U.S. position on the treaty, Washington, with Moscow and Tehran, is not expected to strive hard for a strong law. One of the sticky points has been the inclusion of ammunition.

Cross-sectoral support

The first-ever comprehensive treaty for control of the commerce in conventional arms enjoys broad support in view of the ethical, socio-economic and public health ramifications of armed conflict. Some 2,000 parliamentarians from over 114 countries have backed proposals to cover transfers of all conventional arms, including ammunition and equipment. Significantly, they have also committed to advocate early and effective ratification of such a treaty by their respective governments.

A World Health Organisation report on violence way back in 2002 singled out the need for a global response to arms trade as among the top priorities. Now, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has underscored the importance of a robust treaty on arms trade for the protection of life and the promotion of health. Also significant is the call issued last year by a group of global investors who manage or own assets worth $1.2 trillion. Signatories to the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, the group has underscored the need for greater transparency in international arms transfers as social, governance and environmental issues have implications for investment portfolios.

Hard realities

Yet none of the stakeholders who engaged in deliberations for nearly a decade would seriously count on major weapons exporting countries to cease arming Africa’s warlords or Latin America’s drug mafia in a hurry. The ink had barely dried on the document signed in New York when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was busy negotiating weapons export deals with the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, the United Kingdom is one of the earliest champions of talks on the arms treaty.

Western powers seldom miss an opportunity to express support for the momentous democratic churning witnessed in the Middle East. But the material support they extend to autocracies and warlords in Asia and Africa tells a different story. It is no secret that Mr. Cameron’s bid for the sale of Eurofighter Typhoons acquired urgency after the failed merger of BAE Systems, the U.K.’s largest defence contractor, with the Franco-German giant, EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company).

More broadly, clandestine arms supplies that sustain notorious dictatorships and defend domestic jobs are not consistent with the declared policy of promotion of democracy and raising human rights violations abroad. Even less in the context of the severe fallout of the current global economic slowdown.

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