New Arms Trade Treaty looks likely, still full of holes

Marathon negotiations on a new Arms Trade Treaty enters its final stretch today with arms control experts relatively confident that a pact placing some restraints on weapons dealers that arm perpetrators of mass murder is in reach. But don’t expect it to stop the Syrian regime from arming itself. The draft treaty includes loopholes that ...

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Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

Marathon negotiations on a new Arms Trade Treaty enters its final stretch today with arms control experts relatively confident that a pact placing some restraints on weapons dealers that arm perpetrators of mass murder is in reach.

But don't expect it to stop the Syrian regime from arming itself.

The draft treaty includes loopholes that would allow governments to conclude existing arms trade agreements -- even with states engaged in horrific rights abuses.

Marathon negotiations on a new Arms Trade Treaty enters its final stretch today with arms control experts relatively confident that a pact placing some restraints on weapons dealers that arm perpetrators of mass murder is in reach.

But don’t expect it to stop the Syrian regime from arming itself.

The draft treaty includes loopholes that would allow governments to conclude existing arms trade agreements — even with states engaged in horrific rights abuses.

It also provides relatively weak restrictions on the export of ammunition, and places no limits on governments that gift their proxies weapons. It also establishes no international watchdog to enforce the terms of the treaty.

"The historic treaty we need is within reach," Anna MacDonald of Oxfam said in a statement. But a "major problems is that arms transfers under defense agreements may not be affected by this treaty. We are concerned that this would not stop the latest arms sales from Russia to Syria."

Still, MacDonald and other arms control advocates have thrown their weight behind the treaty, saying it will for the first time establish a set of rules and regulations to govern the trade in arms. "We believe that while there are some loopholes in this text, and that it falls short in several ways, we still think is constitutes an important opportunity to reduce the impact of illicit trade and can save lives," Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told reporters.

The debate on the merits of the treaty are unfolding on the final day of the weeks-long session, which opened on July 2, aimed at securing agreement on the first-ever international treaty regulating the $60 billion-a-year international trade in arms. The treaty is aimed at curtailing the capacity of terrorists, armed groups, and genocidal regimes from obtaining weapons on the open market.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sought on Thursday to prod governments into clinching a deal, saying he was prepared to intervene in the negotiations if it would help. "The [U.N.] Secretary-General remains hopeful that the Conference will yield a robust and legally binding Arms Trade Treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence," according to a statement from Ban’s spokesman. "He wishes to remind delegations that we owe it to all the innocent civilians who have fallen victim to armed conflict and violence, to all the children deprived of a better future and to all those risking their lives to build peace and make this a better world." 

U.S. gun-rights advocates oppose the treaty, claiming it is part of a stealth U.N. effort to infringe on gun ownership, a claim that is denied by diplomats and gun control advocates that support the new treaty.

In a sign of the political sensitivity the issue has in Washington, a group of 51 senators warned that they would oppose ratification of the treaty if it failed to protect the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms.

The treaty has been particularly unpopular in Republican circles, with the George W. Bush administration voting against a December 2006, resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that opened international negotiations on the first arms export treaty.

Following his election, President Barack Obama reversed course, supporting U.N. efforts to draft a treaty.

Supporters of the treaty say that it would have no impact on the rights of American gun owners — that it would apply basic arms export standards to foreign countries, requiring states to establish national weapons control lists and to "assess" whether arms exports pose a threat to international peace and security. It would also prohibit the transfer of weapons to countries subject to U.N. arms embargoes.

The final round of talks, chaired by Roberto Garcia Moritan of Argentina, is scheduled to end later today. 

Representatives from the U.N.’s 193 member states are examining a final draft that would bar states that sign the treaty from transfering most convention arms for "the purpose of facilitating the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes constituting grave breaches of the Geneva Convention."

Critics of that provision point out that few countries would ever accept the contention that they are selling weapons for the "purpose" of facilitating massive crimes, even if those weapons are ultimately used in a mass killing. For instance, Russia denies it is supplying weapons to Syria that have been used in the government crackdown on protesters. It says, rather, that it has carried out its obligation to fulfill longstanding military contracts with Syria, including its refurbishment of Syrian-owned helicopters.

The Security Council’s five major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia — are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the world’s trade in conventional weapons. So far, they have raised no serious public objections to the pact, according to experts.

But some experts say that a handful of countries, including Iran, Syria, and North Korea, have objected to the treaty, and may be prepared to block consensus. But even if the treaty is blocked, diplomats say that the supporters of the treaty could put the matter before the U.N. General Assembly for a separate vote. It would require a vote of two-thirds of the membership to endorse the treaty and open it for signature by states.

The latest draft of the treaty can be read here.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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