UN Starts World's First Arms Trade Treaty: Will It Work?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At least 2,000 people a day are killed with weapons by criminal gangs, bandits, terrorists, insurgents -- and their own governments. In Africa alone $18 billion is consumed through armed conflict, about the same amount as non-military foreign aid.

In an effort to regulate the arms trade, UN members approved a resolution on Friday setting out a three-year timetable for negotiations on the world's first-ever Arms Trade Treaty. The aim is to set standards for the global $55 billion export business in guns, tanks, attack helicopters, jet fighters, missiles and other conventional weapons. The United States, the world's largest arms exporter, voted in favor.

The UN General Assembly's disarmament committee (known as the first committee) voted 153 to 1 (Zimbabwe) with 19 abstentions. Adoption by the committee, which includes all UN members, is tantamount to formal approval by the General Assembly by the end of the year. The goal is a conference in 2012 for a final accord.

Easier Said Than Done

The project is fraught with difficulties but is a major step forward after years of dithering. The purpose is to set international criteria to prevent weapons from reaching criminals, terrorists and human rights abusers and level arms trade regulations for major exporters. But diplomats acknowledge one could not stop leakage into the black market entirely.

"We need to have a standard that everyone is applying," said John Duncan, the British ambassador for multilateral arms control and a key force behind the resolution. "We now have lots of emerging suppliers operating with different rules. Because of that disunity, we are ending up with things flowing to where they shouldn't be going."

Hopefully, he said, there would be a "name and shame" list if the treaty is adopted. "It's not going to be a panacea but you raise the economic and political threshold. Currently we have nothing."

Arms sales are a major business and large manufacturers in Western nations welcome a treaty as it might help them compete against lax rivals.

The United States has the world's tightest export regulations but there was no dent in its weapons sales abroad last year, even amid a worldwide recession. U.S. firms exported arms valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, over 68 percent of all global business. (Italy was in second place with $3.7 billion, see chart below).

America was also number one in the arms bazaar to developing nations with $29.6 billion in conventional weapons agreements or more than 70 percent of the world's total, according to a U.S. government report in September. In contrast, Russian arms sales to developing countries were $3.3 billion.

Clinton Speaks

Reversing the policy of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement on October 14 that:

[The treaty initiative] presents us with the opportunity to promote the same high standards for the entire international community that the United States and other responsible arms exporters already have in place to ensure that weaponry is transferred for legitimate purposes.

But she had a key condition -- consensus -- which gives nearly every country a veto. In practice it means Washington could demolish the treaty if it felt the standards were too low and would put its own companies at a disadvantage. (The proposed treaty already excludes any embargo on nationals bearing arms, thereby allowing the usual seepage of US weapons to Mexican gangs.) At the same time, however, countries who want to sell to human rights abusers can also block agreement.

In Friday's debate, Mexico, for example, noted that the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament was paralyzed because of the consensus rules and that all major treaties, including the key Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had been adopted by majority vote. Ireland and Germany also had major doubts on consensus but in the end voted in favor.

Among the abstainers were Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, all arms producers, who wanted further discussion before serious negotiations could begin, indicating the process will be a tough one. But they are expected to join the talks, set to begin next July. Most nations in the Middle East abstained but nearly all countries in Africa and Latin America voted in favor.

Zimbabwe, which cast the sole negative vote on the resolution, is accused of using weapons for political oppression and has had some difficulty getting arms. In April 2008 a Chinese vessel carrying weapons destined for Zimbabwe was forced to leave the South African port of Durban with its cargo intact after dock workers refused to unload the shipment.

Active in the lobbying effort was a coalition of hundreds of non-governmental groups from around the world. "For too long, governments have let the flow of weapons get out of control, causing pain, suffering and death in some of the world's poorest regions," said Anna Macdonald of Oxfam International.

ARMS TRANSFER AGREEMENTS WITH THE WORLD, BY SUPPLIER (IN US DOLLARS)

2008-- Total $55 billion:
United States 37.8. billion
Italy 3.7 billion
Russia 3.5 billion
France 2.6 billion
Germany 1 billion
China 800 million
Britain 200 million
All other Europeans 3.2 billion
All Others 2.4 billion

Source: U.S. Government, Congressional Research Service Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2001-2008 by Richard F. Grimmett , September 4, 2009 (PDF).