U.S. sinks Arms Trade Treaty

Mock tombstones are placed along the East River by members of the Control Arms Coalition during the negotiating conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in New York last month. Reuters

Despite an extraordinary mobilization by global civil society – including human rights groups, disaster relief organizations and arms control advocates – a historic treaty seeking to regulate the international transfer of small arms and light weapons has been defeated for now.

Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam are placing most of the blame for the Arms Trade Treaty’s defeat squarely at the feet of the Obama administration, which raised “eleventh-hour issues with the treaty language,” according to Amnesty International USA.

The U.S. “did a last minute about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty,” Amnesty wrote in an email to supporters after the treaty failed to reach agreement on July 27.

Although the 190 assembled delegations at the Arms Trade Treaty Conference had thought that an agreement was at hand on the final day of the conference, the United States, joined by Russia and China, said it needed more time to resolve perceived problems in the text.

The draft treaty would prohibit states parties from transferring conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they would promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. In considering whether to authorize an arms export, the draft says a country must evaluate whether the weapon would be used to violate international human rights laws or be used by terrorists, organized crime or for corrupt practices.

The idea of an arms trade treaty is supported by civil society organizations worldwide, many of which launched the Control Arms Campaign in 2003. Consisting of about 100 civil society groups around the world, the Control Arms Campaign successfully pushed for governments to start work on developing a global Arms Trade Treaty, a process formally launched in December 2006.

At the time, the U.S. voted against launching the process, while 153 other governments voted for it.

The Obama administration in 2009 reversed the previous administration’s policy and voted to support the negotiating process. With U.S. backing, the UN General Assembly launched a time frame for the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty. This included one preparatory meeting in 2010 and two in 2011, before the final negotiating conference in July 2012.

Because the U.S. had insisted on consensus in the treaty negotiations as a precondition for its participation, it had ensured that any one country – including itself – could wield an effective veto over the treaty.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Oct. 14, 2009, that the U.S. would support the negotiations only if they are held “under the rule of consensus decision-making needed to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation.”

Clinton said the consensus rule, which was ultimately included in the resolution establishing the framework for the negotiations, was needed “to avoid loopholes in the treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly.”

In its email to supporters on Aug. 4, Amnesty International noted that “when the talks began a month ago, many feared that China or Russia might sabotage the talks. Few imagined the United States would be the spoiler.”

The incredulity that the U.S. would spoil the negotiations may have a tad of naivete or wishful thinking, however. The United States is by far the world’s the largest exporter of conventional weapons, accounting for 30 percent of all global exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute. (Most U.S. weapons go to Asia and Oceania, with the subregion of South Asia receiving the bulk of U.S. exports, followed by the Middle East.)

Besides accounting for 90% of civilian casualties in conflict zones – a total of 300,000 to half a million people killed each year – small arms fuel instability, transnational organized crime and terrorism. But the small arms trade is also big business, accounting for approximately $7 billion a year. According to the Small Arms Survey, U.S. transfers alone account for at least $700 million annually.

Some have attributed the Obama administration’s scuttling of the Arms Trade Treaty primarily to this massive amount of money and the undue influence that it can wield over U.S. politicians, particularly in an election year.

As journalist Amy Goodman noted in a column,

There isn’t much that could be considered controversial in the treaty. Signatory governments agree not to export weapons to countries that are under an arms embargo, or to export weapons that would facilitate “the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes” or other violations of international humanitarian law. Exports of arms are banned if they will facilitate “gender-based violence or violence against children” or be used for “transnational organized crime.”

Why does the United States need more time than the more than 90 other countries that had sufficient time to read and approve the text? The answer lies in the power of the gun lobby, the arms industry and the apparent inability of President Barack Obama to do the right thing, especially if it contradicts a cold, political calculation.

“This was stunning cowardice by the Obama administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “It’s a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”

A Western diplomat, the AP reported, also blamed the United States, saying “they derailed the process.” The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the political sensitivities, added that nothing will happen to revive negotiations until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

Pointing out that some 50,000 people lost their lives through armed violence during the course of the month-long arms treaty negotiations in New York, Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control Anna Macdonald said that “key countries have dropped the ball” and “let the rest of the world down.”

State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on July 27 that the United States “supports the outcome today at the Arms Trade Treaty Conference.”

“While the Conference ran out of time to reach consensus on a text,” she said, “it will report its results and the draft text considered back to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The United States supports a second round of negotiations, conducted on the basis of consensus, on the Treaty next year; we do not support a vote in the UNGA on the current text.”

Nuland reiterated the U.S. position that “international trade in conventional arms is a legitimate enterprise that is and should remain regulated by the individual nations themselves.”

“Any Arms Trade Treaty should require states to develop their own national regulations and controls and strengthen the rule of law regarding arms sales,” she added.

Of course, the treaty that the U.S. had just torpedoed would have done exactly that. Language in the draft treaty required strengthening of national regulations for exporting both arms and ammunition.

The U.S. had also raised concerns that the treaty could in some way infringe on the constitutional right of Americans to “keep and bear arms.” However, language in the defeated treaty recognized “the legitimate trade and use of certain conventional arms” where such use is protected by law.

Perhaps the real reason the U.S. objected to the treaty and ruined its chances at the last minute is simply because the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of guns and already violates domestic and international law in its export policies.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

The U.S., however, is notorious for arming some of the most brutal and unsavory regimes in the world, providing Bahrain for example $19 million for the fiscal year 2010 and $19.5 million in fiscal year 2011.

In response to Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stated on Feb. 18, 2011,

U.S. law prohibits aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights, and there is evidence to apply the law today in Bahrain. I have asked the State Department to consider the application of our law and I urge a prompt decision. Attacks on civilians calling for political reform and on the press are assaults on the human rights and dignity of all people.

Sen. Leahy’s concerns were not heeded however, and the U.S. has continued to supply the Bahraini regime through its brutal crackdown on Shiite protesters.

Policies such as these could be susceptible to international pressure were an arms trade treaty to go into effect, not to mention the effect that such a treaty would have on the profits of U.S. weapons manufacturers.

Despite the setback last month in the treaty negotiation process, campaigners are expressing confidence that momentum for the treaty is still strong.

“This is definitely not the end of the story,” said Amnesty International USA’s executive director Suzanne Nossel. “The Obama administration bears heavy responsibility to support moving the talks forward in the coming months and ensuring they reach a successful conclusion.”

Oxfam’s Anna Macdonald said, “The out-of-control arms trade must – and will – be stopped.”

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