The Arms Trade Treaty: one last hurdle remains

Campaigner Hilary Homes on today’s negotiations

Once upon a time, treaty negotiations literally took place behind closed doors. Unless you had some good friends among the delegates, you had to wait until the very end to know the results.  Much of this month’s Arms Trade Treaty negotiations have not been covered by the media. But in the internet age I could virtually be there monitoring Amnesty delegates’ Twitter accounts while tuning into the live feed from the United Nations.

After two decades of work to develop a treaty, the procedural delays around just getting the delegations into the room were nerve-racking. Would we or would we not finally have an Arms Trade Treaty?  Hurry up and vote! Once things got underway, however, it wasn’t long before Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked the consensus needed to finalize the treaty.  Though several states argued for adoption anyway, UN procedure means a return to another venue on another day, most likely the General Assembly itself.

Why was I so anxious to see a result today? Because the world really can’t wait any longer.  We desperately need effective global regulation. Without it, the human cost is simply too high.  Every minute at least one person loses their life because of the poorly regulated arms trade. Every year, half a million people die from armed violence. Millions more are injured, brutally repressed, raped or forced to flee from their homes as a result of abuses and atrocities committed with conventional arms and ammunition.

Each time I met with a Member of Parliament over the past year, they asked me what an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would do. Will it prevent another Syria? Another Congo? How will it save lives?

In the words of my AI Mexico colleague Irma Pérez Gil “This treaty, like all treaties, is not a magic formula but if it is strong it will create a safer world.”

A single treaty can’t be expected to end all wars – the factors involved in preventing and reducing conflict are many. What an ATT can do is help protect civilians by keeping weapons out of the hands of forces likely to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. But this isn’t just about international or internal armed conflicts.

Effective arms control also means that states that routinely crackdown on peaceful demonstrations will find themselves without rubber bullets, tear gas and other security equipment to deploy. Armed groups and organized criminal elements hoping to take advantage of illegal trades or diversion of poorly stored weapons will find their supplies drying up. Brokers working outside the law will be out of business. 

Even states not signing on to an ATT will nonetheless be well aware of what the new rules are for the arms trade. A treaty becomes a powerful tool for diplomacy.

By stigmatizing and taking away some of the means to commit violations and create insecurity, space can be opened up to get out of a “conflict mentality” in which the only resolution is escalation until one side or the other is defeated and/or popular movements for reform are brutally crushed.

After two unsuccessful treaty conferences in less than a year, can the ATT be salvaged? Should it? The answer is a resounding yes. Each round of negotiations has produced a more comprehensive text and brought more states on board, including key players such as the United States – by far the biggest arms dealer in the world. We must keep fighting for the creation of a strong global standard to rein in irresponsible arms trades.

Listen to the words of Marren Akatsa-Bukach, the Executive Director of the Eastern African sub Regional Support Initiative for Advancement of Women, an organization working with survivors of violence: “We really need to control the flow of arms. In Africa, we don’t even know where the arms come from. We really need to prevent countries where there’s real potential of sexual violence from accessing small arms. You don’t need a hundred guns to abuse women’s rights. One man with a gun can rape a whole village.”

Imagine a world in which AK-47s are no longer put in the hands of child soldiers, refugee camps can enjoy genuine security, activists can raise their voices, and journalists can tell their stories without fear of losing their lives. We can and will make that a reality.

Amnesty’s campaign for the Arms Trade Treaty is far from over.

Read the Amnesty press release and draft treaty: UN – Iran, North Korea and Syria cynically block lifesaving arms treaty